A reflective approach to continuing professional development

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The development of professions now requires individuals to undertake a form of continuing professional development, and this is considered as an integral part of the process. It can be considered as a factor that contributes to the integrity and rigour that now defines a professional activity that now defines professional activity. The current environment has seen the relative autonomy that has traditionally been enjoyed by professions being reduced with increasing pressure for accountability. Continuing professional development efforts should aim at developing the individual professional and the delivery of services itself. However, most continuing professional approaches are input-led and rely on the bureaucratic and mechanistic recording of courses and study days with little focus on the outcomes of these activities. The paper argues for a continuing professional development through an approach that is learning focused, emphasising the critical importance of learning through reflective practice (Boud, et.al.). A learning culture for professional development in the business field can be developed.

Continuing professional development and its relationship to continuous improvement in quality are related to causality. A frequently posed question tries to determine whether engagement in the traditional, formal learning opportunities necessarily result in improvements in professional practice.  It is clear that great amounts of learning often occur outside the formal educational programmes and structures, while it is possible for an individual to participate in these formal educational programmes without necessarily achieving the intended educational outcomes of the programmes. It can be argued that continuing professional development is a critical part of professional activity in and of itself. There exists a traditional and misplaced dichotomy in the professional development of theory and practice, with the assumption that the former precedes the latter. However, there have been increasing points of view that consider this relationship and less unidirectional and more circular; professional practice, despite being guided by the existing body of professional knowledge, actually develops theory. And it is clear that this generation of theory should be undertaken in a practical rather that an academic or research setting. The paper is sympathetic to this view, and it posits that professional action can actually distinguish itself from other activities through its reflective qualities in practice and by the contemporary and subsequent interpretation of that practice. The efforts by the government to impose external controls on any professional activity through continuing professional development misses a critical point, in that continuing professional development is not an external component to external activity, but an integral and critical part of that action (Moon).

The practice of continuing professional development is now being considered a central component to the development of professional status; representing a key component of professional development. It enables individual professionals to develop their careers and is a central means by which quality professional service can be assured and maintained, hence reassuring the recipients of these services. The need to be viewed as continuously profession-developing, securing the social status and position of a profession, represent important considerations in the current business environment of constant and rapid development. The competency gap that represents a situation where the growth in knowledge and the rapid technological change, in addition to the obsolete nature of existing knowledge, means that the qualifying programme of professional education can no longer be considered as a career-long declaration of professional competence. As a result, professionals need to be seen as constantly developing their competencies and the profession as a whole so as to ensure that clients are confident of the maintaining of the professional ability in such an environment (Kolb).

Continuing professional development is important to a professional in terms of his or her individual career development. For instance, if a professional in a certain field intends to move into an area of specialization, he or she has been traditionally expected to undergo a formal education programme so as to demonstrate competence with this particular effect being amplified in certain professions than others. Another factor that should be considered while examining continuing professional development is its perceived relationship to the quality of professional service. It is held that the quality of professional service to clients can only be truly maintained if the professionals are committed to the constant updating of knowledge and practice.

Another aspect of the issue of continuing professional development and quality is connected to what can be described as consumerism in the society, a phenomenon that has manifested in many professional fields. Governments are now developing reforms that focus on the concept of competence on many professions. It is also clear that the consumers of professional services are now far more willing and ready to express the specific needs in this regards; this can be attributed to the fact that clients are now better informed about issues and therefore possess more confidence to declare their requirements. In this regard, continuing professional development is completely voluntary, as any other consideration would weaken the basic premise of the autonomy of a professional. The situation provides an indication of a major source of tension in professional self-reliance and the external compulsory requirements that continuing professional development be undertaken, in that, in the traditional model, the individual professional represents the sole judge of their need for up-skilling updating or development. There other challenges in regard to the existing conception of continuing professional development; there is the question of whether it should assume an outcome or input-based approach with the latter simply providing a formal acknowledgment that an individual has undertaken a form of prescribed continuing professional development activity, while the former urges the individual professional to analyse their learning needs, then identify a suitable learning opportunity, and assess whether the learning needs were satisfied by the particular activity. The former approach is oriented towards experiential, rather than classroom learning activities. There is also the challenge of measuring and monitoring continuing professional development. An input-based approach addresses this challenge by recording course attendance, rather than assessing the outcomes of participation. In contrast, an output-based model experiences more challenges in measuring and monitoring outcomes and is considerably more time to consuming for an individual professional who wants to record their continuing professional development. It requires a different approach on the part of the participating professionals to the issued of learning since the approach is largely innovative and can, therefore, vary from the traditional approach to education and the measuring and monitoring of such activities (Boyd & Fales).

Another challenging issue is the defining of the relationship between continuing professional development and professional competence. There are regulations that now place expectations on professionals to be able to demonstrate competence so as to be allowed to practice their professionals. The issue here then is how the regulations intend to define and measure that competence considering the fact that these standards and competency frameworks cannot measure professional activity. The occupational standards are mechanical and, as such cannot provide the best fit for the assessment of professional competence, which in reality involves specialised and individual decisions that relate specifically to each unique situation. The occupational standards are also rigid, and this hinders the flexible application making them unsuitable for the dynamic business environment (Wang).

Certain field of thought would consider the fact that undertaking a form of continuing professional development provides evidence of competence. However, this could be misleading as the completion of such continuing professional development activities cannot guarantee that the individual professional is competent. Furthermore, it could be the case that the individuals who are highly competent will already have developed their competencies through methods other than the formal mandatory activities that come under continuing professional development. In fact, this provides a critical point that supports the use of reflective learning approaches to continuing professional development. It could be said that the act of an individual professional to undertake continuing professional activity, as opposed to the mechanistic and routinised activities, mean that these individual professionals are intrinsically competent. It could also be inferred that the existence of a concept such as mandatory continuing professional development suggest that these professional are not working professionally anymore (Wang).

Reflection in action represents a dynamic process of reviewing professional actions in the midst of their performance without having to necessarily interrupt those actions. If an intuitive and spontaneous performance of an activity results in nothing more than the results that are expected of it, the individual professional tends not to think about the process. However, if an intuitive performance results in unexpected results a professional might respond by reflecting-in-action. An astute example of reflection-in-action is presented in the manner by which individuals make adjustments as they undertake certain actions, such as hammering a nail into a wooden plank. The mental processes of ensuring that the nail is properly set and hammered into the wooden plank are in the included in the performing of the act; moreover, individuals constantly adjust the performance of the activity on a continuous basis to make sure that the nails are going in straight, alter the angle the hammer hits the nails to account for variances. It is also possible to extend this process further by having individuals not only reflect in action but also subsequently reflect on the action (Boyd & Fales).

There exists a critical and intrinsic connection between reflective practices and the kind of genuine learning that will likely change a learner’s perception and as a result engender changes in the individual professionals’ behavior. An approach that considers reflection, and learning from reflection, will tend to facilitate the development of continuing developments in quality of professional services. The approach is often referred to as Action Learning and it is related to the Action Research model. Reflecting in and on action encourages a professional to critically interrogate the common sense premises that guide the daily activities, and nature and  justifications provided for the particular work activities. All of these represent critical factors in ensuring that the quality of institutional, and increasingly performance driven, professional provision is under constant review. As a result, if continuing professional development is to initiate effective development to professionals and the continuous improvement in professional service quality, then there is a need to ensure that the culture of reflective practice is encouraged, developing a process that is easily navigable and that can assist with the formalization of these activities. The approach can also create a tangible way that enables the systematic recording of reflection. Despite the fact that the approach ahs its challenges, it allows for the individual professionals to move away from the input-based approach that is problematic (Bosangit & Demangeot).

Enabling the systematic recording of an individual’s reflection can be achieved through the maintaining of a practice journal. There exist several methods of recording reflection or material that could provide a basis for future reflection, and each reflecting professional is likely to have a system that suits his or her style, and specific learning needs best.  The use of such tools are also faced with challenges such as confidentiality issues and the existing tendency to emphasise the negative aspects of a profession, and the time-intensive nature of the completion of such journals, memory and recall issue and the level of introspection observed seems to neglect a multidisciplinary approach. Considering the assertions above, it is clear that there is great value in the sharing of reflection through systems like professional supervision as it can be a way to encourage the individual profession to take a complete view of a professional activity, rather than being locked into specific events. It also allows the regular and free exchanges of professional experiences among a small group of peers (Kolb).