In Order to Address Your Firm's Skill Needs You Must First Define Them
As the first article of a 3-part series, Ramos discusses how accounting firms can address the skills gap being driven by digital transformation.
Accounting firms and finance organizations see digital transformation on the horizon and realize they must navigate a significant skills gap.
The competencies for which their professionals are most proficient are not the same as those needed to leverage emerging technologies to transform their value proposition. Closing this skills gap has now become a strategic imperative.
Own Your Organization’s Skill Set
The first step in closing the skills gap is to define it. What are the skills your team needs for digital transformation and what are the skills they currently possess? You could spend hours reading all the articles that have been written on this topic, which may help you get started.
But the opinions of others should not be the final word on what is right for your organization. Ultimately, your organization must understand and define its own skills gap. Getting this definition right and having your professionals buy into it is too important to let someone outside the organization define it for you.
As with any change management initiative, defining the skills gap should be driven and supported by leadership, and it should involve a critical mass of your team members that will add value by:
- Contributing multiple perspectives to deepen the wisdom of the group, and
- Creating a base of support to launch and sustain the initiative.
Broad skill categories (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving, data analytics) can help organize your thinking, but they’re too general to build a plan for competency development. If you were given a directive “our people need to improve their critical thinking” or if a CPE provider advertised a module on “problem solving,” the chances of you developing the necessary competencies would be slim.
To effectively close your skills gap, you must have a much greater and more nuanced understanding of that gap. To develop that understanding, focus on desired behaviors. Make an abstract concept like “decision making” concrete by taking steps to understand how you want your professionals to act when faced with a decision.
Use Scenarios to Define the Skills Gap
After identifying a process in your firm that needs improvement, start by asking these questions to define the skills gap at your organization.
- How do your professionals currently act to perform the tasks in that process?
- Given those same circumstances and tasks, how do you want them to act in the future?
The delta between what they’re doing now and what you want them to do defines the skills gap, and putting the exercise within the context of a business situation makes the definition more concrete.
Best Practices to Identify and Close the Skills Gap
To identify areas of improvement, facilitated focus groups work best
A focus group of four to five team members, representing a variety of perspectives, works best as a forum to foster discussions that will define your skills gap. A moderator will keep the conversation focused and allow multiple perspectives to contribute to the outcome by giving them the space to describe scenarios based on their experience.
Use storytelling techniques
The purpose of working a scenario is to make the abstract concrete, and a skilled facilitator will use storytelling to help the group envision the scenario. The comment, “Our people just go through the motions when doing their internal controls walkthroughs. We need them to ask better questions,” is not concrete enough to build a skills development plan. Encourage the group to dig deeper.
- What does “going through the motions” look like?
- How can you tell when someone is not “going through the motions?” What do they do differently?
- What are some examples of “better questions?”
- What questions do you wish they’d ask, but don’t?
Probe for root causes
To make a dent in the skills gap you’ll need to address root causes, and asking “why?” is a good, simple technique for root cause analysis.
Q: Why do you think our staff doesn’t ask good questions when performing walkthroughs?
A: They’re just listening for the answers they need to complete the checklist. They also don’t have the experience necessary to really understand the implications of what the client tells them.
In this example the answer identifies two skills gaps that need to be addressed: active listening skills for the person performing the walkthrough, and effective delegation for the person responsible for making work assignments. Root cause analysis serves two vital purposes.
- It helps identify what can be addressed through learning and what must be addressed in some other ways. A lack of experienced staff as a root cause of poor quality walkthroughs is not a problem that can be solved by closing the skills gap.
- Root cause analysis is the basis for learning objectives. If a part of your organization’s business strategy is for your staff to add value by identifying financial control issues that impair data quality, then one of your learning objectives must be something like “apply active listening skills to identify control weaknesses that impart the timely and accurate capture and processing of data.”
Play the Long Game
CPA firm and finance organization leaders know they need to invest in their professional staff to develop new skill sets, and often turn to quick-fix technology solutions that promise competency in “problem solving” or “data analytics.” A more holistic strategy to upskilling CPAs starts with identifying the unique needs and capabilities of your organization, and then learning to apply these advisory skills in context to generate solutions.
Based on my experience, this methodical approach is a more effective way to execute a digital transformation strategy over the long term.
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Mike Ramos is Founder and Managing Partner at MRA Learning, which focuses on professional skills development for CPA firms and in-house finance departments. He has more 30 years of experience helping accounting firms develop the skills and competencies they need to compete.