Whether it's learning about the latest upgrade to Office 2010, new tax software, or the growing use of cloud and mobile applications, information technology training is taking on more of a critical role at CPA firms throughout the country.

At Bellevue, Wash.-based Clark Nuber, for example, IT training begins on an employee's first day, and continues throughout their career with the firm. The firm realizes that it may only have a handful of people at a time in any given training session, so in addition to using tech-savvy partners to assist, IT training is conducted using a "buddy system," according to chief information officer Peter Henley. "Everyone, even coming in, is always at a different level, so if you don't know something, it's very likely someone next to you does, so everyone gets a buddy [during training and after]," he said. "We feel we get a lot of efficiency without allocating a large amount of hours to training."

Henley also explained that Clark Nuber is considering offering its staff a menu of tech-training services complete with an attached self-assessment test, so everyone can determine and select what they need to to learn.

"The pro on this is that we will use people at the highest efficiencies to help train, but the downside is not everyone is always up to the speed they think they are," said Henley. "We are very serious about the right kind of training. I hear stories how other firms will offer training, but then a senior manager will pull them out [of the session] to get work done. Our people do see the value of training, so they will never do that."

Clark Nuber conducts its training at its own facility, but will also send staff to state CPA society-run classes, and Henley and his staff will offer suggestions from a calendar of classes to attend. In addition, the firm is considering using webinars for specific tech training or internal CPE on tech subjects.

 

CONTINUOUS LEARNING INITIATIVES

At firms such as Salina, Kan.-based Kennedy and Coe, training is overseen by an IT partner, but can also include a training coordinator and even outside specialists, where needed.

IT training is conducted at all levels throughout a staffer's life at the firm. The training sessions for what it considers "Level 1-4" are conducted over a selected four-to-five-day period over the course of the first two years. After that, the firm works with a training coordinator to determine the best way to approach a training initiative - which usually centers around large-scale rollouts.

"When we moved to [Microsoft] Office 2010, we did training on the differences from the old system. We mostly use webinars for these larger efforts, since we have eight offices," revealed the firm's IT partner, Greg Davis. "We also just rolled out an effort to get our people using LinkedIn. We did a lunch-and-learn on how to get set up and use it for business development."

Davis said that while he and his staff are confident in their current training methods, there are challenges. "The toughest part with tech training is that people going in have all different levels of knowledge. We need to have some mechanism to know who is at what level; we don't want to go over or under anyone's head," he said. "As we get more specialized in different areas, we struggle with providing a generic training program that applies to everyone in our firm, particularly with different verticals. We have invested a lot of time and money in our training programs - many firms don't even have one person and we have a few dedicated to training."

In addition, Kennedy and Coe will send its staff to vendor-sponsored conferences to get up to speed on the products it uses, such as last month's CCH user confab. Overall, it is looking to do more with online courses as well, particularly with audit and attest and tax software training.

 

ALTERNATIVE METHODS

IT training can take up a significant portion of a CPA's time. Some firms look to Web-based and CD training to maximize their staff's time, but that doesn't always work, and more time has to be spent.

"We just had all of our technicians do training for our upgrade to Windows 7; that was a three-day class. We don't have a big conference room, so we couldn't do all of our staff at once; we had to pick specific weeks for each technician, and it's more expensive," reported Amelia Regalado, IT director at Coral Gables, Fla.-based Goldstein Schechter Koch. "We have also purchased CD training so the staff can do some on their time, and that gives us more flexibility. We have had groups go out and do, say, an Adobe or Word class, then we will take a dozen or so of the most knowledgeable people and then they retrain our staff."

The firm also engages in video conferencing, which Regalado said is very efficient since it has a staff of 130 and two offices that are 30 miles apart. Recently, the firm conducted video training on audit and trial balance software CaseWare, as well as Thomson Reuters' NetClient CS portals.

"We try to push out as much training as we can, so sometimes we do get creative in a way that's convenient for the firm," she said. "What's more difficult to push out is testing to see if they really got what they've been trained on. We don't have a method right now for staff or partners to check them, but we are looking into that for the future."

 

OFFICE CHAMPION

At a firm like Princeton, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown, with nearly 400 staff and 11 offices, many of its partners and IT staff get involved in training. The firm assigns what it calls an "office champion" to head up IT training efforts, usually a partner with exceptional technology skills and knowledge.

"We are a very tech-centric firm; from Day One you get a laptop and a BlackBerry and are taught how to use everything that's relevant to your job," said WSB partner James Bourke. "If we do an acquisition, we give all of the incoming staff all of our technology and we have a few days' worth of sessions on tax, workflow, document management ... everything we're on."

Bourke also said that "lunch-and-learn" sessions are common when a new technology is deployed throughout the firm. The office will have multiple sessions over several days and the staff picks a session to attend, usually via video link.

 

IN-HOUSE TRAINERS

Some firms, particularly larger ones, will have professional trainers on staff who are not CPAs or technologists, but educators who can organize training programs on any topic, including IT.

Los Angeles-based SingerLewak has had a professional training team on staff since 2002. The three-person team will organize a variety of training sessions whenever there is a major technology change or strategy.

Karyn Gallen, a former high school English teacher who has consulted with large businesses on tech training, heads up SingerLewak's Training Department as director of professional development and training. She said that with a staff of 250 throughout six offices, there is a fair amount of coordination required, and explained that training sessions are conducted throughout the year.

"In professional services, they are a sharp group, but they want what they want when they want it and it's hard to accept change," said Gallen. "The goal of my team is to make sure deadlines are met; client commitments are first and foremost. Everyone needs to be on board and on schedule. We're serious about communication, and make sure everyone is up to speed."

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