Continuous Professional Development

See also: Planning Personal Development

Continuing professional development, or CPD, is the ongoing process of developing, maintaining and documenting your professional skills.

These skills may be gained formally, through courses or training, or informally, on the job or by watching others.

Some professions use the term 'continuing professional development' formally, and require a certain amount of development activity to be carried out and documented each year as a condition of maintaining your membership of, or registration with, a professional body, or a licence to operate in that field.

In other areas, CPD is used more informally. A commitment to learning and improving is, however, generally expected of anyone in a professional capacity.

What is a profession?

A profession, broadly speaking, is a career area for which you need a professional qualification. Traditionally, the professions included law, medicine (including dentistry and other allied professions), accountancy, the civil service and similar. More recently, many other professions have emerged, including HR, marketing, sales and IT, all of which have recognised professional qualifications.

Professional qualifications are a requirement to operate in some professions, such as medicine or dentistry. While it is not absolutely required to hold an HR qualification to work in HR, for example, anyone wishing to make a career in that area is strongly encouraged to obtain qualifications to demonstrate their commitment.

The Continuing Professional Development Cycle

The process of CPD is designed to help you identify and act on your own development needs.

The Continuous Professional Development Cycle (see figure) shows that professional development is, like much other learning, best thought of as a circular series of activities. The process moves from identifying your development needs through planning and then carrying out your learning activities, to reflecting on your learning, and then applying it and sharing it with others.

The Continuing Professional Development Cycle. 1 Identify and plan your development. 2. Plan learning activities. 3. Reflect on your learning. 4. Apply your learning. 5 Share your learning.

Perhaps the most important thing about CPD is that it is personal.

Each individual is expected to identify their own needs, organise their own training, and learn for themselves. Part of being a professional is taking responsibility for your own skills and recognising when they need to improve.

1. Identifying Your Needs

There are a number of ways in which you can identify development needs.

For example, you can carry out a skills audit. You may receive feedback from colleagues or your line manager about an area in which you are weaker. Alternatively, you may have an interest in a particular area and want to develop your knowledge.

You may find our page on Identifying Areas for Development helpful here.

Once you have identified your key areas for development, you then need to plan your activities.

2. Planning and Carrying Out Development Activities

Development activities may be either:

  • Formal, such as training courses or particular qualifications. These are often, though not always, provided by an external provider, and may carry a cost. Your employer may have a limit on what they are prepared to pay, so you may need to consider self-funding or alternatives such as online resources that are cheaper or even free.

  • Informal learning, including side-by-side learning, video training (for example, for doctors in particular surgical techniques), shadowing, mentoring, coaching or reading on the subject.

There is a growing recognition that continuing professional development is both essential and potentially expensive. Especially in developing countries, professionals are using the internet to share teaching content for free, or at very low cost. You may find that an imaginative approach to seeking out development activities pays off.

3. Reflecting on Your Learning

Reflecting on what you have learned is a vital part of continuing professional development. Learning does not emerge only from activities that you designated as ‘development’, and you may find that you are learning at least as much from your day-to-day activities.


It is a good idea to keep a ‘learning log’ or diary. Make a habit of writing in it at least once a week, if not each day (if you leave it any longer, you probably won’t remember). For each event or activity that you find useful, make a note of:

  • The situation;
  • What you learned;
  • What you will do differently as a result.

This diary can be used to assess your progress against your development goals.

For any formal or informal but designated development activity, you should record the activity, what you found useful or not useful about it, and what you have learned. In each case, make sure that you are clear about how it will change what you do in future (how you apply your learning).

You may find our page on Reflective Practice helpful in developing good habits in this area.

4. Applying Your Learning

Going on training courses or watching videos is only the start. You then have to apply what you have learned to your own job. This can be quite a clumsy process, especially at first. The competence theory of learning sets out that we move through four stages when we learn:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – not knowing what we don’t know;

  2. Conscious incompetence – knowing where we need to develop and watching other people do it, but still unable to do it ourselves with any skill;

  3. Conscious competence – being able to do something reasonably well, provided we concentrate; and

  4. Unconscious competence – being able to do something almost instinctively, without needing to focus on it.

There is more about this cycle in our page on Coaching.

When you have done some training or other development activity, you will probably be somewhere between conscious incompetence and conscious competence, depending on how much you have been able to practise.

You therefore need to spend time applying your learning and practising to move to a stage of unconscious competence.

5. Sharing Your Learning with Others

Some commentators add a fifth stage to the competence cycle – being able to teach others. It is certainly true that being able to articulate and share your learning is an important part of making sure that you have fully internalised it.


It is a good idea to get into the habit of discussing your learning with your colleagues on a regular basis. Sharing each other's learning can be a really good development tool, and can help you identify new areas for development, or ideas for other development activities, as well as helping to refine what you have learnt in your mind.

Recording Your Development

An important part of continuing professional development is being able to demonstrate it, especially if your membership of a professional body depends on it.

You should therefore keep a folder or portfolio of all your development activities, drawing on your learning diary. The aim of this is to be able to show how your skills and knowledge have developed over a period.

You should therefore:

  • Keep a note of your development needs and goals, and make a regular (quarterly, six-monthly or annual) assessment of your progress against them;

  • Record any training courses attended, with a copy of any certificates or qualifications obtained. Keep a record of the date, provider, aims of the training, and your thoughts on what you learned from it;

  • Make a note of any shadowing, video-assisted training or similar. In each case, record the provider, the aims, and your thoughts about what you learned;

  • For any coaching or mentoring sessions, make a note of the date, the person you were with, what you discussed, and what you intend to do differently as a result;

  • For any reading and other informal development that you do, make a note of the book or website, and what you have learned and will do differently as a result;

  • If you are involved in any critical incidents, or make particular mistakes from which you learn, record the details of the incident, what you learned, and what you will do differently as a result.

And finally…

Continuing professional development is an ongoing process, as well as a cycle. You are likely to continue to learn throughout your professional life.

It is therefore a good idea to develop a process for it that works for you at an early stage of your career.

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Personal Development

Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.

The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.