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IFS head of faculty financial regulation Mark Roberts says the Open University was ahead of its time with its idea of remote learning. Now IFAs can make use of the internet to achieve the same ends with continuing professional development

The scraggy beard, the tousled hair and the sports jacket with leather patches at the elbows were always the giveaway. There used to be no mistaking an Open University professor and the look was a particular favourite with those in the geography fraternity.

Advisers working in the financial services sector will feel little affiliation with these academics as they head out to client meetings suited and booted. Product details and commission rates fill their heads rather than seminar and lecture notes and the worlds seem so very far apart.
However, the Open University was in many ways ahead of its time. Certainly, the dress code did not lead the way forward but the learning options given to students allowed them to embrace further education while continuing with their daily life in a way that few other institutions did.

As a concept, remote learning is something that has grown up quickly as communications and technology have improved in recent years. In grasping the opportunities that even the earliest technologies presented, the Open University showed what could be done.

In many ways, the students it served were perhaps more successful in what they achieved because of the focused decision they had made to include a programme of study around the day-to-day life they were living. It is here that the real similarity with the financial services market can be seen. Intermediaries today are under more pressure than perhaps they have ever been. Product choice is huge, client needs are growing in complexity and the FSA is overlooking every move they make.

No intermediary wants to give poor advice to their client and the penalties for doing so are not simply reputational but also regulatory. Getting it right is imperative and to ensure this happens, the FSA demands that firms and their advisers undertake continuing professional development throughout their career.

This is as it should be but it does mean that further learning, training and study has to be done on top of a daily workload, which is growing faster than a fertilised bed of weeds. The key to a successful continuing professional development programme is twofold. First, it must be focused on improving skills and technical knowledge that directly applies to the job being done. Doing courses or attending seminars for the sake of ticking a box is a worthless exercise. Second, the ongoing development will only be digested effectively if it is taken in bite-sized chunks.

Doing nothing for month after month after year and then hoping to gorge oneself on a feast of learning will not achieve the desired result. It will produce the academic equivalent of being violently sick and not only means very little learning will be retained but also puts people off further efforts in the future.

For professional people, the internet has truly turned the world on its head and allowed for things that were simply unthinkable in the recent past. For advisers juggling a busy work life with the hope of a social life, further learning must be convenient if it is going to be truly successful.

Online resources have made sure that this is the case in virtually every aspect of development for advisers. Having taken the requisite exams to operate in their chosen market, examin- ation bodies provide ongoing competence tools which allow individuals to keep up to date with changes to perceived best advice and offer customer scenarios that enable them to put their technical knowledge into practice.

In the past, there has perhaps been too much emphasis on the technical knowledge that an adviser had without helping them ensure they could apply it effectively. This simulated type of learning is now an excellent vehicle in which they can test-drive their skills.

For those looking to brush up on their technical knowledge, access to information has never been better and online banks of articles, definitions, regulatory requirements and research are readily available.
For advisers looking to branch out into new areas of the market, there are also a number of tailor made qualifications that are focused specifically to their needs. Whether they are looking to the lifetime mortgage market, commercial mortgages or perhaps the insurance arena, there are qualifications available which provide a tailored training course and a suitable qualification.
By breaking down the modules available and the areas they cover, examining and training bodies in the market have sought to make it easier for individuals to get at the knowledge they need. In keeping it specific to certain areas, it also makes it quicker for advisers to get up to speed and start operating in the new sector faster than if more general cour- ses were being studied.

These qualifications are again available remotely and picking them carefully and absorbing the information slowly will be key to advisers succeeding with the minimum of sacrifice and effort.

Not all learning is available over the internet and heaven forbid it ever gets to that stage or we might as well all live in little pods with nothing but an internet connection and a Blackberry to keep us company.

Human interaction is also important and seminars and master classes are available from introductory to MBA level across a broad range of topics. Introducing such away days into a con-tinuing development programme creates a stimulus, which is important and allows individuals to actually talk through problems and issues, which in itself can be hugely beneficial.Professional development is part of the professional environment that advisers operate in but the myriad options available mean it need not detract from students’ professional and social lives.

While the Open University may have led the way in the options it provided, fortunately, the dress code still remains purely optional.

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