Practice Profile: Escaping everyday education

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From entirely new skill sets to ever-changing regulations, accountants are required to learn more now than perhaps ever before in the profession’s history, putting a premium of finding innovative ways to improve CPA firm’s education efforts. With this imperative firmly in mind, Top 100 Firm Berdon has not only introduced new methods of knowledge-sharing over the last few years, but hired a new director of education and learning, Carrie Kirby, to steer those initiatives.

Kirby has been a learning and development professional for more than a decade, and when she was brought on to Berdon a year ago, she discovered that the New York City-headquartered firm already had a solid foundation. “I was immediately impressed with the amount of education delivered here,” she shared. “The quality of the content was very high. I was impressed that partners and upper management are involved in education not only in a strategic way through our learning committees, but also in preparing and delivering training with the help of more junior staff members.”

But as Kirby took stock of Berdon’s education and development programs, she also noticed an allegiance to traditional learning models. “One primary way of delivering training at Berdon is the instructor-led model, which is great,” she explained. “I find that, in terms of adult learners, it appeals to people who learned to learn in that way. In many cases, that’s the baby boomer generation that learned to learn by listening to a lecture. The instructor-led model of training delivery tends to favor that population a lot. One of the things we started doing when I started, was to keep the positive elements of that delivery model, and include other ways of delivering training as well.”

This is also known as a blended learning model, Kirby explained, and one she implemented in her previous role leading education for many years at a law firm, a profession that shares much in common with accounting in terms of education strategy. A key difference between the two, Kirby explained, is she has found that while lawyers prefer the Socratic method of learning, processing things verbally, “Accountants, from what I have observed — a broad generalization — need more time to process; they do not process out loud, verbally … [they] take in the information and consider it, turn concepts around in their mind. They need time to breathe so they can do that.”

Meyer Mintz, Berdon tax partner and co-chair of the real estate group, agreed -- with both assessments, as he is a lawyer in addition to a CPA. He has also been an instructor in the firm since the day he joined in 1995, giving him perspective into how his colleagues learn, especially as younger generations come on board. “From my perspective, there truly are benefits to a hybrid approach,” he said. “I’ve been providing training for 20-plus years and as time has passed, I have started to do more example-based lecturing, which is more interactive. For example, using case studies, filling out an example, doing the problem set, coming up with three to four different disclosures -- more interactive in that context. It enables people to think through the content as opposed to at the end of a traditional lecture, [when] they often don’t remember what they did.”

Medium and message

So Berdon already had a history of blending both learning methods and the experience levels of its instructors. Mintz has been working with audit supervisor Eric Huynh, who joined the firm five years ago and has been an instructor for three, in developing new continuing education courses within the firm.

That partnership, in collaboration with Kirby, recently staged an “Escape the Room” challenge as the case study portion of an audit staff class on financings and restructurings. The course not only proved popular but is indicative of the new ways Berdon wants to approach traditional staff training and professional development.

Escape rooms, which have exploded in popularity, typically require a team to complete a series of puzzles, scavenger hunts, and other challenges in order to exit a confined space in the shortest time possible. Often, teams are pitted against each other to ratchet up the competitive atmosphere. For Mintz and Huynh’s creation, three teams of six people participated in three different rooms (two in the firm’s Manhattan office and one in its Jericho, Long Island, office) and though the teams weren’t going head to head, it didn’t stop them from getting swept up in the competitive spirit.

“One of the unintended consequences was the competition between the three rooms,” Huynh shared, which he and Mintz witnessed as the challenge’s “keymasters,” who made themselves available in each room to guide participants through the challenges -- though without giving away the answers.

Mintz, Huynh and Kirby developed the challenge as an interactive case study that would satisfy CPE requirements and keep the group of third-year participants engaged.

“The concept was to try to escape the room based on a final example,” Mintz explained. “We built the case study -- Eric and I went through the technical side and Carrie on the logistical side. We came up with a fact pattern that aligned with the class content.”

Participants used clues to calculate answers, which would open a box or lead to the next clue requiring calculation. “There was mystique involved, and personal facts we gave them to make it feel like a real-life situation,” Mintz said.

As the two keymasters looked on, it was “amazing to watch them interact with each other,” he shared.

In this first run of a new case study format, Kirby found that the medium became a strong part of the message.

“The content of the class from this year, versus the prior year, was by and large the same,” she said. “What changed was the way we delivered it. Rather than hours of lecture just directing learners through the content from top to bottom, to start there was a lecture, and then they were sent to individual rooms, and provided with clues, based on the information received in the lecture. That’s where you saw all the things Meyer and Eric mentioned: engagement, ownership, retaining and applying the lecture content, and building in accountability for learning without making it seem like a test, or punitive. It was complete fun.”

For Kirby, the strongest indication of the course’s success was after the escapes. “It’s memorable even now, a few months out,” she continued. “Sometimes you see in adult education, learning transfer falls off pretty quickly. When you’re involving learners, it’s active, and when they can tell you what they learned and remember the experience, [that’s a success].”

Flipping the script

As fruitful as the “Escape the Room” challenge was, and even with plans to replicate it for a few other departments, the Berdon education team acknowledges they won’t be able to use that template too often. Instead, the firm will draw on past successful activities while continuing to brainstorm new ones.

In conjunction with Berdon’s biannual firmwide meetings, the firm hosts two large business development days comprising nearly a dozen individual sessions on various business development activities. This past year, the firm brought in the New York City-based improv troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade to assist in professional development.

“The theater work helped build networking skills,” Kirby said. “It’s interesting to get accountants in a room and throw improv exercises at them. They responded really well; it was pretty incredible, actually. For business development days, you look for creative options to get people participating. People come in for presentation and communication training, and those workshops … you learn and then perform what you just did. In the theater world, it’s what’s known as a master class. You’re expected to get on your feet and perform it in the moment. It’s very effective, not just as practice on the spot, but it forces you to be extroverted in a way.”

Regardless of the format, Kirby relies on what she said has been a buzzword in the education space for the last decade: “Anyway you can gamify a course, it’s going to help learners.” In the past, for example, Berdon has used a Jeopardy game show format for courses.

Kirby is also a big proponent of another learning trend, the “flipped classroom” model developed by teacher Jon Bergmann. “The idea is to take all the lecture content, and provide [students] that ahead of time, a week or two to three weeks,” she explained. “They watch the lecture-based online module whenever they like. They can watch it in small chunks, they can fast-forward through content they know or repeat content they need to review more closely. There are assessments built in to test knowledge ahead of time. When they come in the classroom, instead of a lecture, they are immediately thrown into a problem-solving situation with an instructor present to help them. They have to apply what they learned in the online module … I’m a huge fan of flipped learning, and I’ve seen it work in a variety of places.”

The flipped learning model has not only been proven effective for students, but more efficient. “One thing we’re trying to do, for accountants in general … we have level-based training, this level takes these classes, this level takes these,” Mintz explained. “To build in learning tracks in practice groups, so whoever is doing, say, real estate work, in addition to levels-based classes, they do online and flipped learning, so you don’t have to prepare for 50 classes. You create courses based on online content, based on the practice area you’re in, and it opens new ways of learning. You don’t need classroom space.”

The hybrid model is a cornerstone of Berdon’s learning strategy, Kirby reiterated. “We are aggressively approaching a blended learning strategy, online and in the classroom. Online learning can be a structured course you review over several hours, a recording of a live webinar, or brief videos in short bursts -- what the industry refers to as nano-learning. We are aggressively looking to bring blended learning into our overall strategy.”

While certain departments and areas of study lend themselves more easily to this plan, Berdon is exploring firmwide applications.

“On the audit side, there’s an opportunity to use blended learning to allow people to learn at their own pace and comfort level, at the time most convenient for them,” Kirby said. “We can use online learning for general technique training, and use the classroom to focus on topics that benefit most from group interaction or require the expertise of an experienced instructor. This frees up our instructors to focus attention on particular industries that our clients are involved in, keeping our education focused on what our clients need us to know.”

Multigenerational mindset

Moving toward industry-specific training fits with Berdon’s flat organizational structure, where younger professionals are already accustomed to collaborating with managers and partners, the way Mintz and Huynh have in their course development.

Huynh benefits from being involved in the firm’s recruiting activities on college campuses, where he says he gets a lot of student questions about the firm’s training methods, and also from being more recently on the receiving end of the firm’s early training courses.

“It’s a good thing, having a partner work with younger staff, such as myself, to create training courses, as I have direct insight on how the content we deliver will be utilized at the level of the staff being trained. This allows us to home in on specific topics that we may need to spend additional time on to reinforce,” he said.

Still, the firm knows certain learning models will only work for specific generations. Had the firm tried an “Escape the Room” at a partner level, for example, the partners “would look at me like I had three heads,” Kirby joked. “They would have literally escaped the room — walked out — based on their expectations, and how they learned to learn.”

Customizing the courses and training for the many generations in today’s workforce is an ongoing effort. “One of the challenges, with a diverse population, in age and ways of thinking, is their background and where they came from,” Mintz said. “Some school systems are more hands-on versus lecture-based. We have a group of 40 people we have to deliver content to, and it takes a lot of thought for the best way to do that so everyone benefits. That’s why the ‘Escape the Room’ worked really well for this specific group, with the same generation, same level.”

The models may shift by demographic, but Berdon’s emphasis remains on continual, engaged education.

“The learning strategy will move in the direction of a culture of continuous learning,” Kirby said. “Due to advances in technology, we are in what people refer to as the fourth industrial revolution. The accounting industry is in a period of change that’s only going to become more rapid in the next three to five years. That means, people are saying, those in college right now are going to graduate and have jobs that don’t even exist today, and we’re talking about in the span of a couple of years. That’s the world we’re living in, the world our clients are in. If we’re not really pursuing ways to make sure we’re learning all the time — and that goes to everyone in the industry — we will be left behind. Berdon’s commitment to training that is active and engaging means that we will be leading the way.”

At a glance

Firm Berdon

Headquarters New York City

Co-managing partners Mark Bosswick and Stu Kotler

No. of partners/staff 43/661

Year founded 1917

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Continuing education Professional development Practice management