Training budgets are tempting targets during tight times, but should firms really cut expenses in this area? According to Gartner Research, every hour of information technology training provides 5.75 hours of increased capacity.How did they reach this conclusion? According to Gartner's research, the savings are tabulated by adding:

* Experimentation: 4.5 hours. It takes an untrained worker twice as long to figure it out on their own.

* Support: .25 hours. For every hour of training, help desk or support time is reduced by a quarter of an hour.

* Rework: One hour. Review and fixing errors is reduced by one hour for every hour of training.

These statistics are enlightening, but they do not address the end user's level of confidence. A confident individual learns faster and is more capable of applying new knowledge to their current projects and work environment. This is particularly true for partners and administrative personnel in an accounting firm. They often don't receive training for numerous reasons, including work overload, resistance to change and fear of exposing any lack of skills in front of less-experienced staff. Accounting firms also utilize more applications than most other industries (production and back office).

While most firm leaders agree that training is important, their viewpoints about what it entails are often myopic. Training involves more that CPE credits for maintaining a permit to practice. It should also include soft skills (team building, management skills and leadership) as well as IT skills (core applications, productivity tools, and firm standards, policies and procedures). Great firms realize that 40 hours is not nearly enough and have leveraged the learning process in recent years. As a result, these firms are getting smarter and increasing capacity.

Accounting firms will have to increase production with fewer people in the future. Other industries have leveraged technology to increase production while reducing the number of jobs. Consider the agriculture industry. In 1900, over 50 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. As of 2000, approximately 3 percent of the U.S. workforce was engaged in agriculture, yet production was 10 times as high, due primarily to technology. Manufacturing is another industry in which U.S. production has increased while the number of jobs has decreased. U.S. manufacturing workers are far more productive than workers in China because of training and investments in technology. The history of business is littered with the remains of those who did not or could not change with the times - buggy whips, steamships, locomotive manufacturers and photographic film producers.

Change is required in the accounting profession if firms want to take advantage of new opportunities and leverage technology to increase productivity. Some will say that firms have been doing this for the past 25 years, but I contend that the rate of change is increasing. Today's workforce requires continuous training and learning in three areas - technical skills, soft skills and IT - a requirement that can average 150 hours on an annual basis.

Firms are hiring learning professionals to administer learning programs, and managing partners are holding others (including partners) accountable. Many firms believe that they are too small to justify a professional educator or think they don't need one on a full-time basis. Smaller firms are sharing these resources with other firms or sourcing to an outside learning coordinator.

The biggest mistake that firms make is to delegate this responsibility to a partner or accountant who hasn't been trained as an adult educator and has a narrow view of education. Plus, this is not that person's primary job responsibility. They tend to focus on education after completing their charge hour budgets and when they have extra time. This is not a good solution.

Let's review some specifics in IT that will increase your firm's capacity significantly in the future, if you will take a few hours planning, preparing and conducting quality learning experiences. Remember that everyone needs their own education plan - one size fits one. Here are some areas where firms will see immediate, productive results in the technology area with a total of 10 hours of investment:

* E-mail management (six hours);

* Document management and records retention standards (one hour);

* Search techniques (one hour);

* MS Word tips and techniques (one hour); and,

* MS Excel tips and techniques (one hour).

You will note that a significant amount of time is devoted to e-mail management, because e-mail is where most users (and particularly partners) spend a significant amount of time on a daily basis. Most have not conducted training, and a majority use e-mail (MS Outlook) as a records management database, rather than a mailbox. You don't leave your paper mail in your mailbox for months or years and sort it every time you need a letter or document. The same should be true for e-mail.

Risk management and privacy best practices dictate firm standards, policies and procedures. A client's file is the proper place to store business records. Content management packages are designed to search, organize, control versions, and link related documents. Most have add-ins to Outlook that make this process relatively easy. The other topics are just as important, and one hour is minimal, assuming that your skills are current.

The choice is yours: Will you continue to invest in your most important asset, people, or will you allow their skills to deteriorate? Training and learning is a two-way street, and everyone should be a lifelong learner and educator in order to maximize their individual potential and productivity. The cost of education is a minimal investment for firms that desire an increase in revenue per full-time equivalent.

Take the number of full-time equivalents times 50 hours of additional capacity times an average rate per hour - e.g., 20 people x 50 hours x $150 per hour equals $150,000 additional revenue. That is a significant return on your training investment, even if you offset the additional revenue with the opportunity cost of training for the hours spent in the classroom. The other benefit is that the firm will be smarter, and staff will be more confident. This is extremely important in retaining and attracting quality people.

Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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