The Challenge of Training CPAs for Digital Transformation

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

Jan 30th 2020
Founder & Managing Partner MRA Learning
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Digital transformation is a long-term strategic initiative. Firm leaders intuitively understand that the successful execution of a digital transformation strategy depends in large part on their ability to “train up” their staff. In effect, they’re tacitly confirming what learning professionals have always believed: training is a strategic discipline, not a tactical one.

As noted in the first article in this series, too often, upskilling staff is approached as a “check the box” exercise, driven by stand-alone continuing education programs that promise competency in a short period of time. This article explores the answers to three questions that are critical to thinking of training as a strategic, not a tactical, asset.

How Training Misses the Mark

Does this sound familiar? CPA firm, “ABC,” goes through peer review and learns they need to improve risk assessment. The director of their professional practice group decides that all staff training programs for the next year must teach risk assessment.

The firm’s best audit managers develop the training, which is delivered successfully and receives good evaluation scores. The next year, because staff already received the training, the risk assessment material is dropped.

The firm goes through an internal inspection and discovers the unfortunate reality. Risk assessment is still below par.

Question 1:  What is the best way to train for what we need?

Where did ABC go wrong? The root cause lies in the failure to recognize that audit risk is not a topic, but a skill that combines communication, problem solving and decision making.

Most training in the accounting profession is technical and based on the same knowledge-transfer model used in undergraduate accounting classes: the student listens to a lecture from an expert; the expert tells them what they need to know; the students demonstrate comprehension by passing an exam.

ABC’s training missed the mark because they treated risk assessment as a technical topic, imparting their staff with knowledge of GAAP requirements and the firm’s planning forms. Building professional skills requires a different approach.

Skill building requires practice. It requires an experiential approach that not only rewards success, but also allows the learner to fail, receive coaching and practice to get better.

Imagine trying to learn to hit a baseball by reading a book and taking test. Problem solving and critical thinking skills are more like hitting a baseball than preparing a bank reconciliation.

Once you learn how to prepare a bank reconciliation, the learning process is complete. Conversely, skills development requires trial and error. It’s an ongoing commitment. Even the best major leaguers take batting practice.

Developing the skills needed for digital transformation is no different. Organizations won’t be able to move the needle through lectures that explain critical thinking or problem solving. Their professionals will need practice, lots of practice.

Question #2: What can, and cannot, be addressed through training?

Not every upskilling challenge can be solved through formal classroom training. Some changes could be achieved through better coaching, more timely feedback from supervisors or a different approach to performance evaluations, compensation or recruiting. ABC tried to address their skills problem solely through formal classroom training.

What if the director of professional standards at ABC had also required all coaching managers to work one-on-one with their staff to demonstrate how to connect the dots between “what can go wrong” and the audit program?  Or if audit partners spent 10 minutes at their planning meetings to explain the questions they would ask the client during planning and why?

Organizations have many tools at their disposal to develop and reinforce skills and competencies, and all of these should be aligned to complement each other. Training alone cannot fill the skills gap.

Question #3: How can the classroom support digital transformation?

Skills development requires practice, and a classroom training session is a perfect opportunity for practice. At the outset, professionals trying to learn a new skill may not get it right the first, or even the twenty-first time. That’s okay.

“Fail fast, fail forward.” That’s the mantra of entrepreneurs who understand that failure allows their organizations to mature faster. The same is true of skill building. Remember that this will be a trial and error process. What you want to minimize is having these errors occur on the job, or worse yet, in front of the client. Enter a more strategic use of classroom time.

Rather than use the classroom to test for comprehension, use the classroom as a safe space where your professionals can try out new skills, make mistakes, receive constructive feedback and try again. You don’t have to add time in the classroom—just reduce the lecture.

New Skills Need a New Approach to Training

The desire for staff professionals with advanced analytical, communication and problem solving skills is not new. Organizations that have a gap in these skills required for digital transformation need to ask why—given the longstanding need—their existing training has been unsuccessful at preventing the emergence of this gap.

A new approach to training is required, one that leverages the strategic value of learning, not just minimizes the cost of continuing education. In the final article in this series, we’ll explore the biggest challenge to making this change and how to overcome it.

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