It's no secret that the workplace is changing rapidly. In the digital era of today, businesses with roots in traditional methods are being challenged by game-changing startups, and the will to adapt is no longer optional, but essential. So where does change begin for those willing to adapt? The answer lies in education, and not just for current undergrads and students -- CPE is also a vital step.

The American Institute of CPAs understood this when it launched its Task Force on the Future of Learning last June to re-assess the nature of professional education in today's digital world, stating that, "To fuel the passion for learning in the CPA profession, we must fundamentally change how regulation, professional development and CPE are structured, delivered and measured."

But permanent change might have already arrived last year. In a move reflective of a more contemporary sense of learning, the state boards of accountancy in Maryland and Ohio approved plans to accept CPE in 10-mintue increments, a far cry from the traditional model of sit-in classes covering a myriad of topics. And while the total CPE hours would remain the same (120 hours every three years in Ohio, 80 hours every two years in Maryland), the innovative delivery method approved by the states would allow busy professionals to learn and review particular skills as their job calls for it.

"This paves the way for just-in-time microlearning, which can target specific topics in short bursts of learning," said Tom Hood, chief executive officer of the Maryland Association of CPAs, in a statement posted online last May. "Imagine an audit team going to a client and one of the newly assigned staff wants to brush up on auditing cash. Or a supervisor getting ready to have a review conversation wants to refresh on feedback techniques. Research shows that learning in this format can actually be more effective than multiple topics in all-day formats. There is also the advantage of having the learning much closer to the time-frame in which it will be actually used."

"We believe that in today's rapidly changing and complex world, the winners will be those who can keep their rate of learning greater than the rate of change and greater than the competition (or L>C2)," Hood added. "These exciting developments in learning and learning technologies will enable CPAs to be the most knowledgeable professionals, in addition to the most trusted professionals."

Clar Rosso, vice president of member learning and competency at the AICPA, said that the spark for changes in CPE learning started back at the beginning of the recession in 2008, when many professionals opted to continue their educations at home, rather than spend money on travel and lodging to take classes. But the online method stuck when more and more people realized that they were getting a more customized learning experience.

"[The recession] was a big economic driver, but the efficiency factor has stayed with us. People found that they can pace themselves better online," she said. "People are saying they're busier than ever and expect a more customizable marketplace -- 'I should be able to determine what I want and where I want it.' Digital delivery has made that much more consumable for people."

Rosso also stressed that a shift to more competency-based learning in CPE is gaining traction, signifying a more "quality over quantity" aspect moving forward. "When we talk about competency development, we consider it the combination of your knowledge and skills," she said. "Let's try to build competency in the areas CPAs practice in. One hundred and twenty hours doesn't necessarily make a better professional, but if we can focus on the areas they're trying to build, that can work."

"The challenge [now] is for the providers of the CPE," she added. "Now you have to say, 'I need to create crash training.' But with all these options, you can customize their learning; firms can customize the topics discussed."

Ken Koskay, senior vice president of learning solutions with the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, echoed this call for more customization. The customization of content, on a firm-to-firm basis, has proven to be the biggest influencer in continued education, Koskay said, rather than any particular hot topic. "We are getting more requests in the last five years from our larger customers (the Big Four and large firms) to create more custom content," he said. "The courses are designed to fulfill competencies (e.g., 'How can I get a manager to supervisor, supervisor to partner,' etc.). They don't want to talk about CPE; they want to talk about how courses develop competency."

And more than ever, Koskay added, timeliness has become essential to professional education. "If there is a new tax act, we will literally have a new webinar within five business days," he said. "We should be able to deliver more topical content within [that timeframe]. Millennials expect a different experience. Listening to courses isn't as engaging as an interactive online course. It's the media that's become more of a topic than the topic."

Koskay noted, however, that new CPE development will take time and money, as platforms such as Thomson Reuters' own Checkpoint Learning CPE courses took work to be able to function across all mobile devices to allow for ultimate usability. "You spend time developing for [mobile] devices. It's high stakes to address those needs [and] you have to make careful investments," he said.

The exact destination of CPE developments is not written in stone, but the most important aspect of continued education at the moment is the change itself. How people will get their education will be the defining factor in the next decade, and a willingness to recognize that can make learning both stress-free and more fulfilling for professionals.

"I think that it's going to be a journey," said the AICPA's Rosso. "Change will be incremental. I think the AICPA credentials will go 100 percent competency-based as people grow more comfortable, [but] it won't be earlier than 10 years. We're going to have to go through a couple of cycles to see how it's working and fine-tune it, but that's the beauty of learning."

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