Lifelong learning

20 August 2018

This article was featured in the September 2018 issue of the magazine.

Elaine Gibson MSc, ChFCIPPdip, MCMI, FHEA, CIPP education director, discusses what it means, her career, emphasising why learning is essential

Would you consider yourself to be a lifelong learner or does ‘learning’ fill you with dread? If the latter, I would suggest you are thinking about learning in the wrong way.

Lifelong learning does not mean that you must engage in formal education; instead, consider rather that your learning is the opportunity to take a journey where the destination expands as you decide where personally and professionally you wish to develop your horizon. A message I share with the learners I have been responsible for is that when they finally receive that hard-earned certificate, cementing a period of challenging study, this is in fact just the beginning for them as the real learning begins when they start to apply their learnt skills and knowledge to the workplace. I liken this to passing your driving test; yes, you can now drive but the experience comes when you are doing the task in hand. 

There are huge benefits to continuous learning. To put this into context, how many of you have had memory lapses, walked into a room and forgot what you went in there for? A key point to note is that the human brain behaves like a muscle and like all muscles in our body it needs exercising. Brain cells change shape as we learn and cells that send and receive information become stronger. A study conducted by Merck Healthcare identified that individuals who spent significant amounts of time engaged in numerous activities and had to process a variety of information were 47% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than members of the group who did not.

Take time to consider all the fantastic learning opportunities around you. Are you where you want to be professionally right now? Perhaps you have a future goal in mind: maybe to achieve a promotion, change career direction or be an inspirational leader? 


...consider all the fantastic learning opportunities around you


Whilst you may have grand aspirations to develop and become a better version of yourself, if you stand still your goal will never happen. Life can get in the way; we have families, a demanding job and perhaps a boss who puts barriers in the way of progression; however, there is always a way forward: as the old saying goes ‘life is what you make it’. I speak as someone who has personally experienced such challenges and I share a brief account of my journey as a lifelong learner as an example of how I grasped the opportunities that were presented to me.

  • joined the world of work in 1980. There was a recession on, you could not get a mortgage and jobs were thin on the ground. I was lucky, as my introduction to the workplace came when my maths teacher recommended me for a role and I got it. At the age of sixteen I had not yet been introduced to the world of payroll – that gem was on the horizon. 

After settling down and starting a family I finally found my career direction, a passion. I was an accounts officer studying accountancy, but I had found payroll. Despite justifying to my employer why I should undertake the Diploma in Payroll Management with the then Institute of Payroll and Pensions Management (IPPM) – now the Foundation Degree in Payroll Management, via the CIPP – I was refused as my employer did not think that this would benefit my role of running clients’ payrolls. 

I removed the barrier and chose an employer who would sponsor me, and I can honestly say I have never looked back. After experiencing a few more employment opportunities and finally reaching the dizzy heights of payroll specialist for a well-known brewery I had made it, or so I thought. I then spotted an advert in the CIPP magazine offering a trainer role, I went for it and to my absolute delight I got the job. What followed was progression to the CIPP policy and research department where I became a senior policy and research officer. Sponsored by the CIPP, I achieved my Master of Science in Payroll and Business Management (MSc) – now the MSc in Business and Reward Management. This qualification opened a further door and I began my journey into the world of higher education eventually becoming associate director of professional qualifications. In addition to the role of programme leader for the qualifications portfolio, over time my experience grew, I became a qualified lecturer and now deliver a module of the MSc. achieve compliance a significant amount of our learning is mandatory


These stepping stones opened the door to where I am now, education director for the CIPP responsible for our commercial business. My learning journey has evolved and grown. I experienced a few knocks along the way, but I recognised the opportunities presented and I grasped them with both hands. I am a better version of myself and I will never stop learning.

My experience included formal learning, but there are many other ways that you can gain skills and knowledge – opportunities are all around and you just need to recognise they are there. It is easy to feel comfortable where you are now but being comfortable is your barrier to growth. David Cancel of suggests “the sooner we can accept that comfort is the enemy of growth, the sooner we can ensure we’re not being side-tracked by fleeting feelings of discomfort and, instead, put our energy into meaningful change and continuing to always move forward.” 

In the brief overview of my journey I alluded to a few knocks along the way. A common and potential barrier to your progression is the situation where you are plodding along nicely, you have a lot of plates in the air and you are just about managing to keep them there. Out of the blue comes a challenge to your status quo, yes, the boss is questioning why you have made that decision or taken a certain course of action. So, in this situation how does your brain sort such situations and put into context? 

  • The brain of certainty – deals in fact but sometimes won’t let you move forward (think fight or flight) and can be a barrier to development and progress.
  • The brain of possibility – this is the more curious side where you accept change and growth can occur.

The natural reaction is to become defensive, which you may know as the fight or flight phenomenon. In the main, we tend to fight and become defensive. Yet part of the learning journey is to step back and take a deep breath and turn what could be a negative into a positive. This alone is a great opportunity in the circle of lifelong learning – those knocks will make you the person you are or want to become.

My advice for those of you looking to embrace the learning opportunities at your world of work is as follows.

  • You need to self-regulate your own learning journey but sometimes it is difficult to see the way forward. A great way to map a plan is via your appraisal/personal development process. Even if you feel like your organisation uses the process as a tick-box exercise, you can turn the appraisal to your advantage – embrace it and smash those objectives.
  • If you are CIPP member or even a member of another professional body, keep your continuing professional development up to date, as this will also assist you with your work place objectives. 
  • Open your mind, explore and take on board new experiences, listen to people, try something new.
  • If you feel anxious about a task that has gone wrong, stop. We all make mistakes – change that anxiety into determination and action.
  • Put yourself out there, be a mentor, become involved in charity work, do something new, meet new people, be a board/volunteer member for someone.
  • Share your experiences with others and help create a work-based environment conducive to development and progression.
  • As you experience challenge, change and transformation you can take others along with you. Share in your successes and believe in your own talent – if you do others will. It can be infectious.

If you are thinking about formal learning and feel unsure about making the commitment, take a look at the CIPP Learning Professional course which is all about learning to learn. You will:

  • identify your learning and academic reading and writing skills
  • consolidate previous learning and information
  • recognise a style of note-taking that is suitable for your own learning
  • interact with other learners to discuss and disseminate information.

There are a variety of definitions of lifelong learning, but the one I like encompasses all facets: “the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons”.

Professionally, when you consider the amount of legislation changes, in order for payroll, pension or reward professionals to achieve compliance, a significant amount of our learning is mandatory; couple this with the challenges of an ever-evolving digital world of work, we are required to learn and embrace new technologies. We are experiencing an evolution: artificial intelligence is changing the world of work and whether we like it or not, we are all lifelong learners and it is incumbent that you learn how to learn. 

I leave you with a final reflection. Think back to when you entered the workplace and compare to where you are now. I imagine you are likely to be having a ‘WOW!’ moment – put simply: Work hard, seize Opportunities, and Win!