Progress in The Learning Firm

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by Kenneth M. McCall, MBA

Boomer Consulting, Inc. has been providing technology management assistance to the accounting profession for many years. For the past five years Boomer Consulting, Inc has sponsored a gathering of training and learning professionals for a conference dedicated to their unique needs and concerns.

Over the life of these meetings, one consistent theme which has been presented throughout is the need to practice a training or learning management process. The model for this process is simple, yet powerful. The process begins with an analysis of job needs to determine the critical tasks which must be performed successfully for a person to meet the firm's standards and expectations in that role. Next, an analysis of each person's current skills and abilities must be conducted. Then, equipped with the knowledge of what the job requires and what the current staff can do, the shortfall clearly becomes the training curriculum to be pursued. As straightforward as this model seems, it is not easy to accomplish and only a few years ago there were virtually no firms attending the learning conferences who where actually doing their training management according to this model.

A second theme which has evolved over the last several years is the change in vision or expectation of what the "trainer" in a firm is likely to do. Most firms made their initial investment in a training professional to focus on technical or software use training. While this role is still important, it is no longer the primary focus of the most progressive firms. These firms have adopted a learning culture within the organization which focuses on the total educational and professional development of their people. Thus, hardware and software training has taken its place alongside CPE, ‘soft skill' development, and overall professional development and career guidance. Accordingly, the term ‘training' has tended to be replaced by ‘learning' and the learning professional within the firm has taken on a broader and more all-encompassing role.

One of the joys of this year's Learning Circle was to see how many firms, in stark contrast to just a few years ago, are actually putting the learning management model to work! Where once there were none, now there are many! This was perhaps best illustrated at the Circle by a presentation given by Patricia Stafford, Director of Learning and Development at JH Cohn, LLP, Roseland, New Jersey.

Time and space in this article does not permit a detailed review of all that Ms. Stafford shared with the group, but a summary of her key points will be instructive. JH Cohn has embarked on a concentrated needs analysis study designed to systematically identify the firmwide learning needs, and also identify related factors influencing job performance such as feedback, barriers to performance, and performance support. This analysis was conducted in a systematic fashion, using surveys, face-to-face interviews at multiple levels within the firm, and reviews of existing "exemplary performers". In other words, they focused on the people who were performing at the highest levels to find out why and how they were able to perform in that fashion. Then, based upon data collected, the firm developed a list of key knowledge, skills, and attributes for top performers, and some key performance indicators to measure them. These knowledge, skill, and attribute lists will become the focus of the learning program within the firm while some of the related knowledge about performance barriers, support, and feedback will not only play a role in learning curricula, but also serve as learning guidelines in a human resource perspective. While Ms. Stafford was careful to point out that all this is a ‘work in progress' at JH Cohn, it is clear that the firm has taken major strides toward internal improvement!

The ‘learning firms' represented at this Circle have several themes in common. The learning professionals in attendance brought these out over and over again.

First, firms who are making progress in developing their staff have the full support and involvement of top management. In some cases these learning professionals report to the Managing Partner of the firm, but even when they do not, the Managing Partner or equivalent displays a visible personal interest and involvement in the role of developmental education within the firm. Even if the management of the learning function falls under Human Resources or some other department of the firm, learning is not viewed as an "HR responsibility", it is a "leadership responsibility".

The role of the learning professional has evolved dramatically from the days when they were viewed as a software trainer. Some of the people at the circle still do a significant amount of training within the firm, and take pride in doing it well, but their role now encompasses far more than that. Most were in charge of mapping out and directing the overall learning efforts of the firm, as in the case of JH Cohn, and coordinating training efforts from multiple sources to maximize the learning benefit of the firm and its employees.

Clearly these firms recognize that "learning" is more than "training". Soft skills such as marketing, customer service, client development and so forth are a key part of their curricula. One ‘learning point' made during the Circle was that in the good firms "everyone teaches, and everyone learns". The goal within these firms is to leverage and maximize the investment in their most expensive asset: their people!

And finally, it was clear from listening to these learning professionals that a structured approach to learning management works. Not every firm used an identical process, and their techniques varied by the talents and personalities of the people involved, but all of them were using a structured, organized, and documented process to develop their learning program within the firm. ‘Hit or miss' is not an option!

The overall impression one would gain from listening to these learning professionals at work is that great progress is being made in their firms! Learning and educational development of their employees and owners has become a key priority and is viewed as a competitive advantage by their leaders. This is very encouraging as we consider the future of the accounting profession and the competitive demands faced by firms as they try to recruit and retain top talent. If you are managing a firm today, ask yourself, "Are we doing all we can and should to motivate our people and develop their potential?" If you have any doubts, examine the learning program at work within your firm. The clear message from Learning Circle 2003 is that growing a learning firm doesn't cost, it pays!

Kenneth M. McCall is a Consultant at Boomer Consulting, Inc., an organization devoted to the application of computer technology and management consulting.

Ken assists CPA firms in The Technology Leadership Process by working with firms of all sizes in strategic planning and budgeting for their technology needs and has worked extensively in the area of training management for CPA firms.

Ken is a facilitator for The Boomer Technology Circles and works with firms from across the country to make the best get better! He is also the developer and facilitator for The Consultants Training Program - where he assists firms in the development of their technology consulting practice.

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