Why Accounting Firms Should Implement a Learning Strategy

Jun 12th 2017
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As the field of accounting continues to evolve, developing a learning program and fostering a culture of growth will be one of the most important undertakings for future-ready firms, according to a new Checkpoint report from Thomson Reuters.

In Creating a Learning Vision for Your Firm, Thomson Reuters drives home the point that accounting is shifting from a focus on compliance to one that is competitive and more reliant on nontechnical skills.

“Firms are ramping up efforts to attract and retain talented staff, including developing firm-wide curriculum plans to ensure their professionals not only remain CPE compliant but also possess the skills necessary to succeed today – and well into the future,” the report states.

Yet, when it comes to learning and professional development, interestingly enough, it’s not one size fits all.

Many firms are opting for a blended learning approach by using such methods as in-house training, conferences, webinars, and online self-study. Others, looking farther ahead, are placing even more emphasis on soft skills in order to develop well-rounded professionals who are proficient in business development, negotiation, management, supervision leadership, and verbal and written communications.

“You can be brilliant technically, but if you are unable to listen to and understand the client, communicate effectively, and see things from their viewpoint, you are probably going to have a difficult time showing what you know technically and using that ability and knowledge to solve clients’ problems,” Jex Varner, CPA, a consultant with the AuditWatch training and consulting business of Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Learning, said in the report.

And as some practitioners continue to struggle with how to differentiate themselves in today’s competitive environment, the answer, for many firms, is specialization – linking the “learning blueprint,” as Thomson Reuters calls it, with the firm’s business strategy.

“Being proactive in the curriculum offered to professionals can prove successful for those firms that see specialization as a growth opportunity,” the report states.

Firms that overlook the importance of a learning program risk not only losing talented staffers who seek professional growth but also risk losing clients to competitors.

“It is impossible to compete for talent today without having a learning strategy, without having a learning vision,” Varner said. “I think it’s probably one of the more critical things today for a firm to consider.”

Finding and retaining qualified staff continues to be a major challenge for many firms. According to the 2016 American Institute of CPAs Private Companies Practice Section/CPA.com National Management of an Accounting Practice Survey, turnover rates among staffers – particularly at larger firms – grow as the economy improves. The largest firms (annual revenues of $10 million or more) reported seeing median turnover rates of 13.4 percent, up from 12.9 percent in 2014.

Smaller firms in the $750,000 to $10 million range report an average of 8 percent to 9 percent turnover rate. And the smallest firms with no staffers or small numbers of them cite almost no turnover.

So, let’s get back to this culture of growth. It’s pushing firms to create something that will be especially appealing to millennial associates, who want to feel that their work is not only valued but also recognized.

“All generations in the workplace need to learn, develop, share, and teach, but millennials, especially, expect it, and I think that firms are making progress to be responsive to that,” Varner said.

The impact of this tech-savvy generation on a firm’s future and work culture can’t be underestimated. Today, more than one out of every three American workers is a millennial. What’s more, as of the first quarter of 2015, millennials surged past Generation X to take the largest share of the American workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.

There’s more fueling this, too.

Millennials thrive on professional growth and feedback – career progression, professional development, and frequent feedback are big. Managerial feedback helps, with 44 percent of millennials reporting that their managers who meet regularly with them are emotionally and behaviorally connected, according to a Gallup report. On the flip side, only 20 percent of millennials who don’t meet regularly with their managers are engaged.

“Potential candidates are increasingly viewing an organization’s professional development offerings, or employee training, as a required element or critical benefit,” said Justin Hummel, senior director of learning solutions with the Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting business. “If firms do not demonstrate the value of investing in employees, it sends a strong signal to any prospect and may push them to a firm that does invest in their employees’ futures.”

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