Don't Let CPE Kill Professional Development!

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CPE is killing professional development! Illogical? Controversial? Not so much. When an already busy professional is asked to take 20, 40, 80 hours a year of continuing education (CE, CPE, or any of dozens of provincial acronyms), it turns the “joy of learning” into the “agony of homework”.

It’s not too hard to imagine. Most people are motivated to learn intrinsically. They need to learn in order to do better at their job, or train for the next rung up the ladder, or because they have a genuine interest and love for a topic. Intrinsic motivation is wonderful because it is self-motivated, self-driven. For instance, we all have hobbies. And I bet most of us have spent time on Google researching, or on YouTube looking at videos of weaving, or motorcycle maintenance, or hacking together a gaming PC - regardless of topic, it’s us driving ourselves for the joy of learning what we want to learn.

And then there’s CPE. There are millions of working professionals, from CPAs to HR to compliance and beyond, who have to take hours, and hours, and hours of learning, by fiat. It’s either do this or lose your certification. Not a wonderful motivation. And it drives all sorts of non-optimal behavior such as, well, not wanting to learn. Because now someone is forcing me to learn. And they are probably forcing the content I need to learn and perhaps that content is neither enjoyable nor engaging nor particularly useful to that person in their setting. Yet still they must.

This is one of the reasons CPE is killing professional development: it squelches the core, self-driven desire to get better, replacing it with a well-intentioned but consequential demand to learn because someone else said so - not because we wanted to. The hours you might have used to learn on your own are now taken, so there’s no time for self-driven learning, the learning you should do because you actually know best what you need most of the time.

Furthermore, in a corporate setting, managers of certified professionals frequently say, “he/she doesn’t need more learning, they have their CPE.” And thus having CPE results in the manager and the company at large abdicating their responsibility to help their employees learn. Now the CPE that already wasn’t actually helping the person get ahead is digging them a deeper hole. Worse yet is when managers take their few CPE professionals and use them as a proxy for the whole department. “No one needs additional learning here because we’ve got all these folks with CPE”. Well, now you’ve lumped those who don’t have required learning in with those who do, and foresaken the whole group!

Thus, CPE is killing professional development. Not everywhere, but in a surprising number of places, none of which can afford to abandon the ongoing development of their employees. CXXs are busy doing the next deal or the next project. HR/L&D are a place where the professionals don’t know what their internal clients need and the leaders aren’t helping. They’re assuming the problem away with CPE for large swaths of the organization.

Companies should embrace learning that the employee wants and knows will do them the most good. Google famously has their “20% time” - the time that employees devote to side projects that may or may not eventually benefit the company. Whether or not you agree with the % of time spent, there is no doubt that these people, left to their own devices, are accelerating their knowledge to the direct benefit of their employer. Imagine a coder learning about robotics in their 20% time and bringing that knowledge right back to their day-to-day coding job. It just makes sense.

Okay, back to reality. CPE isn’t going anywhere. It’s how the certification associations keep people paying year after year (a ha! they thought no one noticed that). However, managers must not make the mistake that CPE means their employees are learning what they need in order to get better at their job today, and prepare for their next position tomorrow. And they certainly shouldn’t lump everyone in together and presume that their organization is learning enough if it’s just a few who are forced to learn via CPE. Companies must make broad-based, cross-functional education easily available for all and managers should encourage employees to choose for themselves, and ask the manager for counsel, involving both parties in the person’s development. More people will learn more and all will improve their performance. It’s a win-win-win for employee, manager and the company.