What are the 'Adaptive Challenges' for CPE?

Amber Setter
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Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about the future of continuing professional education (CPE). The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) created a task force on the Future of Learning with an accompanying fancy website. In addition, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) is currently in a review period for their Statement on Standards for Continuing Professional Education Programs. What everyone in the profession seems to agree on is CPE needs to change. What we haven’t yet agreed on is how to change it.  

Change is always a challenge, whether that be for an individual, an organization, or an entire profession. In fact, the more constituents involved, the greater the complexity of change. When you add in the velocity of transformation due to technological advances and changing preferences (i.e., how millennials want to learn versus baby boomers), our profession is left with a lot of questions and few, if any, readily available solutions.   

This is what Ronald Heifetz has termed an "adaptive challenge." According to The Work of Leadership, adaptive work is required when “our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.” All of these are true for CPE.

Deeply held beliefs are challenged: The delivery of education has completely transformed. Education is much more accessible and much less expensive. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are just one example. Through edx, you can take a free course from Harvard, MIT, or the University of California-Berkeley from the comfort of your home. You won’t earn college credit (and you certainly won’t earn any CPE), but you can get the information at no cost. Similarly, in the accounting profession, we can now earn CPE for free or pay thousands of dollars for a conference. The beliefs we once held about what makes CPE valuable has transformed. Is it more valuable to earn it from our laptops and save commute time? Or do we get greater value from learning from one another while sharing perspectives in a group? 

Values that made us successful are less relevant: It is my belief that underlying principles of a profession embed thought patterns within it. As an example, consider how consistency and conservatism can get in our way. We look to what was done last year more often than we look to what needs to shift in the future. According to Wikipdeia, “creative accounting” is synonymous with “cooking the books” and “Enronomics.” While creativity certainly carries a negative connotation in the profession, creative ways of learning are exactly what is being called forth. 

Competing perspectives emerge: In response to my call to action, Online Learning: Is NASBA Listening?, I spoke with Jessica Luttrull, the associate director of national registry at NASBA. In addition to managing the day-to-day operations of NASBA’s National Registry of CPE Sponsors, Luttrull is the staff liaison to the committees that review and evaluate the standards.

Luttrull shared many great insights about what NASBA is doing and the forthcoming necessary changes they have identified. (Many of these are in alignment with what you can see over on the AICPA Future of Learning site.) What struck me most during the conversation was the challenge of how to actually implement the change. Yes, nano-learning and gamification may be a lot more fun and effective ways of earning CPE, but how do we implement such innovative ideas when we lack uniform CPE requirements? The AICPA Future of Learning Task Force recommends one uniform, global compliance standard; while NASBA has formed a CPE Model Rule task force that is also looking at bringing uniformity and change to CPE rules.

Meanwhile, states like Maryland, Ohio, and Illinois aren't waiting for NASBA and AICPA to figure it out. Illinois introduced a competency-based learning model, where one has to demonstrate learning before moving on to another section of the course. This is quite different than compliance learning (i.e., click a pop up). And Maryland and Ohio have both approved nano-learning, or earning CPE in 10-minute increments.

Adaptive challenges, according to Heifitz, are the most difficult to solve. They require learning to define the problem, the solution, and the implementation of a solution. I agree we have a lot to learn, whether it be from other industries or from the progressive states who are taking the lead and have already made big changes. And perhaps this is the road the remaining jurisdictions need to take: let go of the status quo, swing out and do something entirely new, and modify as we go along. Or will we let our old friend conservatism get in our way?


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