The shift from hours-based CPD to competence to practise presents an important opportunity for firms to reassess their learning strategy and ensure it contributes to their business needs.
This article is based on a feature first published in Managing for Success, the magazine of the Law Society’s Law Management Section
In November 2017 all solicitors had a new experience; they applied for their practising certificate on the basis of a declaration of “competence to practise”. This is because the concept of a “cpd hour” is now long gone from a regulatory perspective. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) moved to a competency-based model the year before. Despite this seismic change in the way professional development is regulated, few in the profession are aware of the potential benefit to business which the new approach to learning & development makes possible.
Removing the comfort blanket of CPD hours brings firms up hard against the cold reality of the business purpose of learning. Some have dropped it like a stone, glad of an excuse to cut costs. Others see it an opportunity to take a new approach to learning at work and to ensure that professional development serves their business needs.
The rationale for change
Any learning provider will tell you that learning is not something that can be measured in hours. Best practice in professional development now is all about delivering learning close to the work activity. Learning at work is, after all, intended to change behaviour. Everyone reading this article will know of the phenomenon of individuals turning up for irrelevant training sessions, just to get the hours. Whilst the old system gave people who needed it a cast-iron reason to spend time on learning, it did nothing to address the quality of learning or the importance transferring skills into practice.
The competency-based approach
The SRA has provided a “Competency Statement” outlining four areas in which a solicitor may need to demonstrate “competence”. It is important to note that the SRA’s version of competencies is NOT mandatory. Indeed, it is not great! I say that, because it is not commercially focused and the competencies are not especially well expressed. Many firms have adopted the SRA version, but those firms are not the ones who have thought about what their businesses really need in terms of competencies, or what works for individuals; not everyone has to be able to demonstrate all the competencies.
Also worth noting is the fact that the SRA will only look into how an individual meets the competencies if there is an allegation of incompetence. Were that to happen, both the firm and the individual solicitor would be required to produce evidence of competence, including what learning needs were identified, what learning was undertaken and how the learning was transferred into the work-place. This reactive regulatory approach puts continuous learning at the bottom of the compliance priorities list.
In my view, however, learning is much too important to be a matter for compliance alone. Getting people engaged and equipped to rise to the challenges of immense change is far more important.
The business case for change
It made be difficult to believe, but the SRA has done a good thing by freeing up the learning agenda. We do not need to rely on pedagogical arguments to defend a competency-based approach. The change brings very real business benefits for firms.
First, sustainable growth can only come from a strong internal base of well-managed, highly performing individuals; otherwise, there is an ever-present risk of failure to deliver consistently, or at all.
Second, market pressures and the ever accelerating pace of technological development make the ability to change an imperative. Adaptable people working in agile organisations will be more likely to survive and thrive.
Finally, law firms of the future will need to be creative about the way they deliver services. An organisation which values people who are willing to be creative must embrace the attendant risks and be able to manage and mitigate failure. That can only be achieved in an atmosphere of openness, dialogue and commitment to constant improvement. Creating that kind of culture requires a genuine commitment to skills-training as well as technical expertise.
Being released from the need to clock up CPD hours in order to comply with regulations enables firms to use professional development to rise to these challenges.
Managing the new regime also has the potential to bring positive change. Building an understanding of the purpose of learning ensures it is relevant to the strategy of your business and contributes to business need. Using a competency-based approach provides an excellent mechanism to make performance management genuinely meaningful and significantly increases the possibility of enhancing day-to-day performance.
Bringing a competency-based approach alive
Below are some tips for firms wanting to improve the quality and impact of learning, for their people and their business.
Take a strategic view
A good learning strategy defines the purpose of learning for the business; it is, by definition, ‘outcomes-focused’. Developing or reviewing learning strategy will provide evidence of a proactive approach to ensuring competence at an organisational level. It is also the first step in working out how to plan and prioritise training and measure return on investment for any learning initiative.
Competencies are widely used across business and commerce. Put simply, they describe ‘what good looks like’. For example, it might be thought desirable for a lawyer to possess intellectual flexibility and technical knowledge. A competency-based approach would put some detail behind that statement to describe the desired behaviours, such as;
- demonstrates intellectual curiosity in a variety of ways;
- shares relevant information with colleagues across departments;
- quickly and accurately grasps key issues in any legal problem; and
- reflects and develops own thinking including discussion and debate with colleagues.
For some law firms, this kind of approach is well established. For others, however, it opens a Pandora’s Box of issues, including accountability for behaviour as well as financial output, ruffling the feathers of established expertise by shifting the focus to performance management.
Mark Briegal, partner at solicitors Aaron & Partners, ran a highly successful learning and development business before moving into the law; he describes the competency-based approach as a “no-brainer” in the legal sector, since “performance is not just about legal knowledge; it’s about competencies as well”. He describes competencies as fundamental to the performance management process: “If you cannot describe the behaviour you want to encourage, how can you begin to assess development needs?”
Providing evidence of competence throws a spotlight on the performance management process. Many lawyers who are required to manage appraisals are too busy or lack the skills to make them really effective. Yet giving individuals the opportunity to think purposefully about their development needs is an important starting point in the process of determining “competence”. Setting people up for success means getting to grips with performance management and making it work well.
Capture learning in the workplace
People learn most when they are doing their jobs, day-to-day. Arguably, lawyers do this more than most, as the law changes constantly and the work gets progressively more complex. But often, little is invested in maximising the opportunities to capture learning at work:
CILEx moved to an outcomes-based approach to CPD long before the SRA. They require their members to capture a wide range of learning activities. Barbara Hamilton-Bruce, Head of Client at Slater & Gordon (UK) and a former council member at CILEx, says found the experience of recording learning outcomes to be a good one, “It made me think about my learning and, probably more importantly, about where I was unconsciously learning through the tasks that I was completing.”
The SRA’s approach to learning allows lawyers to utilise work-based learning (WBL) principles. Instead of losing the learning value of work activities in the noise and pressure of daily life, WBL takes a structured approach:
- identifying learning opportunities, such as making a presentation to a client or senior partners;
- recording the challenges faced and what it is hoped will be learned from the experience (this is a way for the learner to set their own learning outcomes); and
- once the task is completed, recording reflections on what was learned and identifying ways to build on the experience to further improve knowledge and skills.
There is significant scope for producing evidence of the application of professional ethics in this way – for example, by using WBL principles to learn from a forthcoming negotiation, transaction or proposal.
Learning technology is now key in learning delivery, offering both innovative learning opportunities and tools for tracking and evidencing learning.
It may come as a surprise to find that the number one online learning tool for personal & professional learning, and for work-place learning, in 2017 was YouTube (see Jane Hart’s survey at www.c4lpt.co.uk), because it provides a way to tap into a huge range of expertise in an immediate and engaging way. All kinds of online learning can be translated into recognisable units of activity, and captured through platforms such as the Learning Locker (www.learninglocker.net ).
Lawyers evidence their learning, for example, by using a training record. There is no reason in principle why that record should not be in pen and ink, or individuals can use an online record such as the one provided by the Law Society’s CPD Centre (www.lawsociety.org.uk/cpdcentre). The opportunities for capturing a range of learning activity, as well as the benefits of having a centralised way of tracking learning in the firm, will also make a centralised, and also potentially online, recording system attractive.
Focus on quality
The SRA no longer accredits CPD providers and it now recognises all sorts of learning activities. This throws the onus onto firms to be discerning about investing in training which delivers real impact. Here are three things to look out for;
- Use purely didactic learning judiciously – many lawyers are comfortable being lectured, but that approach does not lend itself to transformational learning which changes behaviour
- Look for how much experiential learning is on offer, e. learning by doing, not listening – learning is an activity; it is not passive
- Always use providers who identify learning outcomes and, ideally, provide opportunities to consolidate learning after a face-to-face events with coaching or online resources
Firms with a clear understanding of the learning process will be able to provide the motivation, resources and support for individuals to progress their own professional development in a wide range of ways. The competency-based approach is intended to move away from rigid measures of learning, and towards a focus on the quality of learning and the potential to change behaviour as a result of training.
The wider context
There are excellent business reasons why a robust approach to individual and organisational performance should involve more than just metrics, whether those are learning hours or monthly budgets. If the move to an outcome-focused approach to CPD brings that prospect into focus, then I for one count it as a blessing.
Implementing learning strategy
- Make sure learning strategy is aligned with business goals
- Assess learning needs – what knowledge, skills and attitudes do you need in place to deliver on your strategy?
- Communicate the learning strategy
- Check there are no other organisational issues which will prevent people from using their new knowledge and skills –such as an unclear line management structure
- Prioritise learning activities in the light of business need
- Make a business case for learning activity – learning should always be more than “a good idea”
- Identify desired learning outcomes – these should accord with business need
- Consider a “blended learning” approach using different learning activities over time to establish and embed ideas and promote the transfer of learning to work
- Decide how and when to measure the impact of learning activities
- Measure the impact of learning activities in terms of hard and soft outcomes
- Generate evidence of success and use it to support the business case for future learning
- promote and support the integration of new knowledge and skills into day-to-day work to embed learning and create evidence of competence
Athena Professional is an award-winning consultancy which can help you to get the best value from your investment in learning. Do get in touch if you would like to have a chat about your organisation’s needs.