How to Manage Your Firm’s Resource Constraints for Digital Transformation

This is the final article in a three-part series that discusses how accounting firms can address the skills gap being driven by digital transformation. 

Mar 3rd 2020
Founder & Managing Partner MRA Learning
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Firms that are committed to growth through innovation understand the need to address their professionals’ emerging skills gaps. The first two articles in this series described an approach to re-skilling professionals for digital transformation that will require many organizations to re-examine their current training strategy.

Finding the will – and the way – to undertake skill building for digital transformation starts with buy-in at the senior leadership level and the allocation of significant resources to make an impact. In essence, developing the skills of your professionals should be thought of as a strategic initiative on par with any other monumental organizational changes, such as a merger or expansion into a new market.

Travis Webb, partner at the accounting firm BKD, leads the firm’s Audit of the Future initiatives. “Historically, we focused much of our training on accounting issues, but we’ve been tackling the challenging shift toward critical thinking and building skills as problem solvers on the issues that matter most to our clients. Building the right training program to build these important skills takes leadership, time and capacity, and the content isn’t easy.”

If your firm has similar aspirations but finds itself with limited resources, here are three steps to effectively budget for digital transformation skill building:

1. A Clear Strategy Drives Efficiency in the Long Run

The first two articles in this series argue that learning strategy is the starting point in addressing the digital transformation skills gap. A well-designed learning strategy drives consensus around critical questions like:

  • What organizational skills do we need to develop?
  • What is the best way to build these skills throughout our professionals’ career?
  • What other talent development tools do we have at our disposal to reinforce and support what we teach through formal learning events?

A carefully considered and well-defined strategy, supported by a robust internal communications plan, is a prerequisite for the efficient use of resources over the long term. The strategy gives you a reference point for answering the inevitable question when you head into uncharted waters: “are we going in the right direction?” While it is certainly possible to overthink the strategy and find your firm mired in “analysis paralysis,” the more common scenario is for firms to rush through the strategy development phase. 

The old construction saying “measure twice, cut once,” is applicable here. An ill-defined strategy invites missteps that can damage the credibility of the learning team and slow the digital transformation momentum.

No firm gets every step in a transformational change right the first time — you will make mistakes. What you need to avoid are self-inflicted wounds caused by a failure to prepare.

2. Reallocate Resources Between Technology and Learning

Most organizations have focused on the technology side of innovation, and those spearheading digital transformation have been busy learning and evaluating the various technology options, running pilot tests and rolling out solutions. It’s easy for this vetting of technologies to take on a life of its own, and if leadership isn’t careful, “digital transformation” becomes too heavily weighted toward the “digital.”

Focusing too much on the technical side of innovation and short-changing the people side sets the organization up to realize only short-term service delivery wins that are easily replicated by others and provide no long-term competitive advantage.

Remember the problem you’re trying to solve. To be more responsive to client expectations, remain relevant and build deeper client relationships, firms want to shift from being a service provider to a source of insight and advice. That is the skills side of innovation, and the technology is the means to the end.

One solution to solving the resource problem is not to obtain more resources but instead to thoughtfully allocate the resources you have. Tally up the time and money you’ve spent on digital transformation over the past two years, then figure out how much or both resources was allocated to technology development versus learning and skills development. If you’re like most firms and the technology investment greatly outpaces the learning investment, then it’s time to reevaluate your resource allocation.

3. Demand More From Your Learning Team

Kris McMasters is the former CEO of top accounting firm CLA and now an executive coach and strategic planning consultant. Kris has helped organizations tackle the re-skilling imperative, and she encourages firms to not settle for a “business-as-usual” approach to training and instead take a fresh look at the entire training process (as described in the first two articles in this series).

She also readily admits that, “Understanding what needs to be taught and how to do it is a lot to sort through and everyone is already very busy serving clients. What firms need is someone dedicated to figuring this out."

Your learning team is a valuable resource, but one that may be underutilized. Many firms use their learning managers to execute the operational tasks of training, such as scheduling courses, registering participants and tracking attendance. But just as finance and accounting professionals can be more than just technicians, your organization’s learning leaders can play a more strategic role in talent development. 

At a minimum, organization leaders should vet their existing learning personnel to evaluate whether they have the skills and the network within the professional learning community to deliver a plan for addressing the skills gap. Properly directed and resourced, organizations may be surprised at what their existing staff can produce. Only after a thorough assessment of existing capabilities should the organization look to a learning consultant for help.

Ultimately, it’s About Leadership

Like any other strategic initiative, firm leaders must buy into and champion digital transformation skill building efforts. That means setting the firm’s training objectives, putting the right people in place to overhaul current programs, giving them the resources to be successful, and holding them accountable. Whatever alchemy your organization employs to mobilize support for a common purpose must also be leveraged to emplace resources for addressing the digital transformation skills gap.

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