Existentialist CPD: professional development in turbulent times

I would like to thank Professor Rachel Mulvey from the University of East London for contributing this post — David
developer applied with my hand - by square eyes

OK, I'm struggling to make a clever link between this picture and the article. The artist made a handprint using photographic developer fluid. I just thought it was pretty cool.

A few months ago I delivered a keynote address on continuing professional development as part of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Seminar Series entitled Re-framing Service Delivery, Professional Practices and Professional Identities in UK Careers Work.   At heart, these seminars bring people together (across professional disciplines) to share ideas about aspects of career work. There are two more still to come, the next is scheduled for November 2011 in Glasgow at the University of the West of Scotland.

Continuing professional development: the story so far

One key aspect of any kind of work is that of professional identity; what ‘working in careers’ or ‘being a careers professional’ means for the individual.  I had been invited to talk about continuing professional development (CPD). No surprises there; most professional bodies, when registering an individual as fit to practise, expect a commitment to ethical practice and CPD and the career guidance profession is no exception.  Actually it’s more than an expectation: it is pretty standard that evidence of CPD is a requirement of professional registration being renewed year on year.  Mostly, it’s a question of the registered professional reporting annually on their professional development, with the professional body auditing by random sampling or spot checking individual records.  Of course, the line between initial and continuing professional development is drawn simply to delineate the minimum training required for safe practice.  In truth, professional learning just goes on forever along a spectrum of personal development. So if you are going to be a professional, and want to be registered with a professional body, you’re bound to continue your professional development throughout your working life. You can of course, take the view that reporting your CPD is simply a paper trail of boxes ticked. Or you work with the grain of reporting your CPD and use the reporting process to capture personal learning outcome and personal learning needs. The latter is of course the hallmark of the professional.

How do you make CPD a truly stretching developmental activity rather than just a box ticking exercise?

Professional competence: three sorts of knowledge

Competence is really a catch-all term for the combination of skills, knowledge and attitudes which enable people to do their job well.  Skills are not innate, but learned or acquired.  Knowledge is the outcome of assimilation of information through learning: and knowledge comes in (at least) three varieties:

  • propositional – knowing that (savoir)
  • practical – knowing how (savoir faire)
  • procedural – knowing how to be (savoir etre)

I include the French here in acknowledgement of the work done on professionalising career guidance by Cedefop (see for example Professionalising career guidance: Practitioner competences and qualification routes in Europe -PDF).

What interests me here in particular is the idea of knowing how to be.  The very simplicity of the phrase beguiled me.  This isn’t about actions, or reflecting, or reflecting on action, or noticing, or assessing, or striving.  So rather than acting, you inhabit the professional role.  A useful analogy here is being an understudy.  Imagine the actor who is understudy say for David Tennant in the role of Hamlet.  When the understudy eventually gets the call it is not to play David Tennant: it is to play Hamlet.  Actually, to be Hamlet for the duration of that performance. You may well notice how you behave, and how you feel.  You may well adjust to the new identify.  But ultimately, you have simply to be a professional. It is just about being.  Which seemed to me to be a rather existentialist notion.  Existentialist counselling ‘focuses on helping people in coming to terms with life in all its confusing complexity’  (Van Deurzen, 2000).   Anyone who has tried meditation or mindfulness will know that the challenge of simply being is quite something.  But it seemed to me that maybe this approach to CPD might work for career professionals in turbulent times.

How often does your CPD make you think seriously about your professional identity?

Career professionals in turbulent times

The impact of economic and political change is keenly felt at present irrespective of what sector people are working in — or indeed find they are not working in.  Ironically, this has never been more true for career guidance professionals themselves. As most local authorities have drastically reduced their Connexions services, thousands of qualified careers workers have found themselves unemployed.  Whether it is their clients or they themselves who are going through it, for many people, these are turbulent times.

Does your CPD help you to be prepared for dramatic changes in your working environment?

CPD as part of practising ethically — and keeping quality high

There is a convincing argument for seeing CPD as part of ethical practice.  If ethical practice demands that the professional’s intervention is for the good of his/her client, then keeping abreast of developments in your given field is a must — because without them your client is missing out on the latest techniques and approaches.  I, for one, see a crucial link between quality standards and ethical practice.

In what ways does your CPD force you to confront ethical imperatives in your work?

CPD: a business driver

Careers professionals who are employed can readily undertake CPD in their own time, and often do. If, however, they seek active support from their employer (including the release of resources in the form of dedicated time for CPD or even payment of fees for particular CPD activities) they may well need to make a business case for resource allocation. I think the case can be made: innovation is what drives businesses forward, and without investing in professional development, a careers service provider risks falling behind in a competitive market.

Could you make a business case for your CPD activities?

Further reading

  • Van Deurzen, E. (2000) Existential counselling and therapy. In Feltham, C. & Horton, I. (eds) Handbook of Counselling and Psychotherapy, pp 331-336.  London: Sage.
  • Ethics & Reflexivity – Self indulgence or sound practice? — presentation by Rachel Mulvey at the Changing Face of Career Management Conference on 20 October 2008.


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