The Indiana CPA Society’s CPA Center of Excellence is seeing greater demand for online learning in nontraditional areas for accountants, according to a new survey.

The CPA Center of Excellence recently surveyed nearly 700 Indiana CPAs to gauge their learning preferences and the skills they need to enhance. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they need technical accounting, auditing and tax education, as expected. But more than 40 percent (respondents could choose multiple types of education) said they also needed non-technical education such as leadership, critical thinking and communications training. And 13 percent indicated that they needed ethics training as well.

Classroom training was the top choice among CPAs for a learning environment. However, nearly 30 percent said they are most successful in online webinars, while over 20 percent said they are successful in online self-study. These online education percentages are believed to be higher than in prior years. As far as devices used for online education, the laptop was used most, followed by a desktop, tablet and smartphone.

"The survey results confirm what we’ve known to be true for some time now," said Indiana CPA Society president and CEO Gary Bolinger in a statement. "First, that mastery of non-technical skills is critical for current and future CPAs. Second, the current hours-based system of education is outdated and not meeting CPAs' needs. And third, CPAs want options for professional development and need help mapping out those plans."

Two questions on the survey addressed learning group size. Larger groups were the preference for both classroom and online learning. In a classroom environment, 93 percent preferred class sizes of 10 or more. In an online environment, 81 percent preferred groups of at least that size as well.

When CPAs were asked about their preferences between formal and informal settings for learning, nearly 64 percent of respondents preferred informal settings. In terms of learning formats, an interactive format was the top vote-getter, followed by lecture and experiential.

"Formal is too restricted. There are often good ideas by the participants in classroom CPE, and they can offer valuable insight at times. A combination of lecture and interactive is best," said one survey respondent. Another commented, "Informal settings usually allow for more participation and knowledge sharing of participants."

A third respondent provided a perspective that contrasts competency-based learning with the current hours-based model: "I like to learn at my own pace. When doing online learning (such as CPA Center of Excellence training), I am required to focus and learn. In a class setting, it is easier to just be physically present and not get much out of the class."

More than 35 percent of respondents indicated a shift to “competency-based” education for CPAs is needed, while only 16 percent disagreed. Nearly 50 percent of the respondents said more information was needed to form an opinion. The competency-based approach used by the CPA Center of Excellence means that competency must be demonstrated in order for a participant to advance through or complete a course.

A related question asked how the CPA's employer addressed the need to develop non-technical (or “soft”) skills. Nearly 45 percent indicated their employer believes this education should be included within their continuing professional education requirements, while another 20 percent offer to pay for this training in addition to other continuing professional education. At the present time, CPAs in Indiana are required to obtain 120 hours of training every three years.

Three other questions dealt with professional development plans. More than 62 percent said they do not currently have a plan, and nearly 65 percent would like resources to help develop one. Of those that do have a plan, only 44 percent said that their skills development is assessed.

In terms of the specific skills necessary to them personally, communications was first at 23 percent, with critical thinking second at 19 percent, problem solving third at 18 percent, leadership fourth at 17 percent and analytical fifth at 16 percent. Among new hires, the skills most lacking were critical thinking, communications, problem solving, analytical and leadership.