Training - A Key to Increased Productivity

Article provided by Gary Boomer, CPA of Boomer Consulting

Many firms are busy evaluating new opportunities to provide services such as consulting and financial services. Many firms are also trying to meet deadlines on a backlog of work with a limited supply of experienced accountants. This past year has been the most profitable year ever for the majority of accounting firms. This fact was confirmed recently at the Horizon Group Management Conference where the majority of the audience reported they had just completed their best year. In spite of situation, partners and staff are still frustrated. Many professionals feel like they are on a treadmill.

In consulting with firms throughout the United States, Canada and the UK, there is a common frustration: "Hiring and retaining quality personnel." Interestingly, money does not seem to be the root of the problem. The immediate, and most sincere response to this dilemma is, "We need training."

Let’s look at what has happened over the past ten years in the accounting profession:

  • The supply of college graduates in accounting has decreased.

  • More accountants have accepted jobs in industry rather than in public practice.

  • The number of students in the pipeline of higher education, in general, has decreased.

  • Large national firms have retained personnel for longer periods due to both the demand and the investment in training.

  • Compliance work, as a percentage of total revenues, has decreased in most firms.

  • Technology has played an increasing role in all aspects of the practice.

  • Continuing professional education measured by the hour, rather than results, has become obsolete.

  • There has been increased employee turnover in the local firm.

Many firms lack the ability or personnel to be attentive to the need for training and to monitor the results of training. The problem exists in firms of all sizes. In the majority of firms, the body of knowledge has expanded, yet training methods have not. How can we change this spiral of events?

The problem and solution appear to be cultural. Some firms are simply too busy to stop and take time to sharpen the saw. Chargeable hours drive revenue, but will chargeable hours be the only factor in the future? I don’t believe chargeable hours are as important as revenue per full-time equivalent. Firms who view personnel and technology as strategic assets are investing in training. Firms who view technology and personnel simply as cost of production and overhead are struggling to maintain profit margins and advance into many of the new service offerings. In my opinion, firms must adopt a learning organization attitude and that attitude must start at the owner level. Most owners in accounting firms could use a significant amount of technology training. “I’m too busy” is no longer a valid excuse.

You can quickly test your firm to see how you are doing by asking the following questions:

  1. Do you have an orientation program for new hirers?

  2. Do you have a training curriculum for all levels of staff and owners?

  3. Do you have a training facility?

  4. Do you have someone in charge of training (i.e. training coordinator)?

  5. Do you have a firm Intranet for sharing knowledge?

Don’t be alarmed if you cannot answer the majority of the questions affirmatively. Very few firms answer all five questions with a “yes”; however, you should be concerned and ready to make some significant changes. Firms that answer positively don’t need to be sold on the virtues of training and creating a “learning organization” culture. For others, I imagine, some convincing is necessary. Usually accountants are convinced by the bottom-line results and by practices of respected peer firms.

Assuming you buy-in to the training concept, how do you get started? Successful firms have hired a training coordinator. This person tends to have an education and training background with excellent technology skills. They know how to write a training objective and develop a curriculum to meet those objectives. In addition, they assist in documenting firm standards and training firm personnel in accordance with those standards. (A big weakness in most firms is poorly documented firm standards.) The successful training coordinators are generally not accountants. However, most owners tend to want to hire “accounting types” thinking they can get in a few charge hours when they aren’t busy! This is a full time job! It involves developing the training curriculum, organizing classes, training the staff, contracting with outside trainers, writing standards and procedures, developing a firm Intranet, documenting end user support procedures, providing end user support and assisting the professional staff in transferring knowledge. This is an important position in your firm.

I encourage you to explore what other firms have done with training programs. Each year a training coordinator’s conference is held specifically for accounting firms. Here, training coordinators from leading firms share information on curriculum, skill assessment tools, training tools and programs and network with their peers. The conference is for training coordinators, firm administrators and partners who are interested in developing an integrated training program for their firm.

To get started, I would encourage you to consider the following:

  1. Complete a training model and discuss it with the firm administrator and/or managing partner in your firm.
  2. Obtain a copy of the training coordinator’s job description and modify it to meet your firm’s requirements.
  3. Recruit and hire a training coordinator for your firm.
  4. Attend the training coordinator’s conference.
  5. Develop a training curriculum for your firm.
  6. Develop a network of peers.
  7. Implement an Intranet for the transfer of information and knowledge.

If you already have a training coordinator, you should consider the following:

  1. Review the model using your firm’s information.
  2. Review the job description to insure it is current and meets your requirements.
  3. Attend the training coordinator’s conference.
  4. Survey end users.
  5. Review the training curriculum.
  6. Implement or review your Intranet and establish priorities on content development for the following year.
  7. Develop a network of peers.
  8. Prepare a training schedule for the coming year.

You should not expect the training coordinator to know all of the technical tax and accounting knowledge. They are a coordinator and responsible for documenting this knowledge and transferring it to others in the firm. This requires a team effort. Furthermore, you should not expect this person to teach all classes. They should have excellent written and oral communication skills. They should be positive and able to motivate your professional staff and owners. Keep in mind, they are a coordinator; they assist in scheduling training, preparing or acquiring materials and identifying external trainers and internal personnel who are capable of training others. This person will rapidly become an important team member.

This is a new area for most firms and one where the complete road map has not yet been written. We have attempted to take the best practices from our experiences and share them with you. Each firm is unique. They have existing personnel with diverse training requirements. Firms are at different levels of technology. Personnel with a higher level of technology skills require less time to learn new skills and updated software applications. Given the success of firms across the country, you, as well, can succeed, and probably will exceed, beyond your own expectations with proper planning, implementation and coaching.

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