The evolution of firm-wide learning

By Kenneth McCall

Education and training have always been an important part of the accounting profession. Beginning with the formal university curriculum required for a degree in accounting and followed by specialized study in preparation for taking the CPA exam, accountants are conditioned to view learning as a key to getting started in their chosen profession. After they've begun to work, they grow accustomed to the annual requirements for Continuing Professional Education (CPE) and annual tax, audit, and accounting updates. Although most accountants accept this ongoing learning as a fact of life in the profession, not everyone realizes that what we have listed so far is only the most basic beginning. Today, more and more firms are recognizing that ongoing education is not just an individual responsibility but a strategic improvement plan within the firm. And there is so much more than CPE to a firm-wide learning program.

The tasks

Continuing Professional Education is a given. As such, it forms the most basic level of a firm-wide learning program. CPE must be scheduled, tracked, and reported. Hopefully, the education received contributes to improved job performance and not just to checking off an annual requirement. But let's move quickly beyond CPE and address some of the other components of firm-wide learning that leading firms have adopted.

Professional task training is a second level of essential learning. Tax laws change, software changes with each update, and new regulations change how engagements must be performed. For compliance reasons alone, firms must provide adequate opportunities to learn and master these recurring changes. That too is part of a firm-wide learning program but still only a small part.

What are the best firms in the country doing to go beyond these basics? In January 2005, Boomer Consulting, Inc., hosted its annual Learning Symposium. Nearly 25 firms, as well as representatives of the AICPA and the Business Learning Institute and a partner of the Maryland Association of CPAs, attended and shared their lessons learned and the best practices they have put into place. From this gathering, it became clear that these leading firms have turned to training and education as strategic tools for growth and profitability. Here are some of the programs they are putting into place today.

Software skills

Today's software is far more complex than what was in place even a few years ago. Even the most common programs, such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, have features for collaboration, Web publishing, and data sharing with other applications that greatly extend their power. This power, however, comes at a price. Many of these powerful features are not intuitive and require training to take full advantage of their capabilities. In addition, these programs have so many capabilities that learning them all could take the lifetime of the program. Thus, the best firms have adopted training programs that identify the most critical and valuable capabilities of the software they use, assess the current skill level of the users, and design training curricula that target the shortfall. The result is empowered users who know how to use the best features of the software and have learned them in the most efficient way possible. These firms have all realized the advantages of targeted training over the learn-by-experimentation method. This software training doesn't just stop with Microsoft Office. Audit, tax, and accounting applications fall in the same category, yielding the same benefits from targeted training.

Hardware and networking

There was a time when hardware and networking were the realm of the network administrator. However, today's mobile accounting workforce is often equipped with notebook computers, wireless networking capabilities, and the need to connect to the firm's network resources from anywhere at any time. Often, audit teams and other workgroups will need to establish temporary networks to share files, printers, and other resources while on the job at a client site. All this implies a need for increased security, virus/spam/spyware protection, and a sense of safe best practices when using public Internet connections. Once again, these skills are too important to be left to individual experimentation; therefore, the best firms have incorporated them into the learning curriculum.

Soft skills

Perhaps the greatest revelation from the Learning Symposium was the degree to which leading firms are incorporating soft skills into their learning programs. These include mandatory topics such as sexual harassment and sensitivity training but also include customer service, marketing, public speaking, business writing, and business etiquette. Firms are recognizing that there is a tangible payoff from building these abilities in employees of all ages at all levels within the firm. Like any initiative, however, the payoff won't happen unless it is clearly built into the comprehensive learning program.

Career development

These various categories of learning requirements seem to come together in career development plans. These plans outline the learning program that employees will follow, beginning with their arrival at the firm and progressing through the logical promotion sequence of a career in the business. In the early days, employees will likely be heavy in skill training and coaching on the culture of the firm. As an individual progresses over time, the focus will shift toward supervision, business development, and project management. At the partner level, the focus will likely be on coaching, mentoring, and leadership for the firm. To ensure action occurs through accountability, these development plans should be integrated with the firm's review and evaluation model.

It should be noted that several firms at the conference recognized these career development plans as a strong tool in recruiting and retention. At the entry level, college students were impressed by what they could expect to learn if they joined the firm, and the much-sought-after midlevel employees recognized the development afforded by their firm as a positive incentive to stay there and reduce expensive turnover.

The job

Clearly, building a learning program like this for a firm doesn't just happen. Someone has to be in charge and must have the skills to do it right. That person may go by various job titles, but for simplicity let's call him or her a "director of firm-wide learning."

Not so long ago, firms began to realize that they needed a trainer to raise the level of software skills in their company. These early trainers did most if not all of the hands-on instruction and were focused on direct skill transfer. As firms realized the value of these trainers, they began to take on additional responsibility and became "training coordinators." Now some of the focus has shifted from direct delivery of training to the coordination of training requirements and training resources. Firms might use a tax manager to train new staff on their tax software, but the training coordinator arranges for the time, materials, and other resources to facilitate the training, as well as helps develop the targeted list of tasks to be mastered. As firms began to adopt some of the learning objectives outlined previously, the focus shifted again from task-oriented skill training to broader educational objectives, and "training" became a broader orientation toward "learning." Today the "director of firm-wide learning" will likely be responsible for the entire program, from skill training to soft skills to career development.

Where do these people come from? Those attending the Learning Symposium had broad and varied backgrounds. A few were accountants who had drifted into the learning arena, while others were former school teachers or had backgrounds of training in industry. Many are trained as adult educators, with histories of curriculum development and educational design for community colleges or other adult learning environments. The common thread, however, is that they were recognized within their firms as having unique skill sets and job requirements. And most of their work is internal to the firm. That means they are often classed as overhead and don't perform much, if any, billable work. The best firms, however, see this overhead as a strategic advantage and have demonstrated a willingness to invest in someone to perform this role and "sharpen the axe" for everyone else.

The model

What does a firm-wide learning program look like? Based upon the models we saw at the Boomer Learning Symposium, it will have the following characteristics: There will be a director of firm-wide learning. This is a full-time position, largely nonbillable, which reports to an influential person within the firm; this might be the human resources director, a partner, or perhaps the management committee. The director of firm-wide learning is responsible for the entire scope of training and education in the firm. That doesn't mean this person teaches all the classes. In fact, some of the learning directors at the conference reported as little as 20 percent of their time spent in classrooms or direct training. Instead, their focus is on needs assessment, curriculum design, and training support. Subject matter experts from within the firm or selected outside trainers might be brought in to teach the classes, but the learning director is responsible for coordinating it all.

The learning director also develops, in conjunction with human resources and the leadership of the firm, the career development plans. These career development plans form the basis for annual individualized learning plans focused on the job needs or career goals of employees. Endorsed by both employee and supervisor, these annual learning plans become part of the evaluation process.

As mentioned earlier, a good firm-wide learning program is a tool for recruiting and retention. Information about it, and the opportunities to talk to staff about how it benefits them, should be built into the human resources recruiting plan. Current employees should be reminded periodically of how the program is enhancing their careers and personal goals and why the firm remains the choice place to stay and work.

Finally, leadership of the firm will want to embrace this learning program as a strategic asset and change agent for the business. The phrase "knowledge is power" has become a cliché because it is true. Firms with solid learning programs will operate more smoothly, be more competitive, and be seen as better places to work than those that don't. Those advantages, in turn, will flow directly or indirectly to greater profitability for the owners who endorse them.

About the author
Kenneth McCall is a senior consultant and speaker with Boomer Consulting, Inc. In his 10 years with Boomer, Ken has worked with clients in the areas of technology management consulting, strategic planning, and facilitation of the Boomer Technology Circles. He can be reached at ken@boomer.com.

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