Education and training have always been an important part of the accounting profession.

Beginning with the formal university curriculum required for a degree in accounting, and followed by specialized study in preparation for taking the CPA exam, accountants are conditioned to "learning" as a key to getting started in their chosen profession. Once at work, they are accustomed to the annual requirements for continuing professional education and annual tax, audit and accounting updates.

While most accept this ongoing learning as a fact of life in the profession, not everyone realizes that what we have listed so far is only the most basic beginning. Today, more and more firms are recognizing that ongoing education is not just an individual responsibility, but a strategic improvement plan within the firm. And there is so much more than continuing professional education to a firm-wide learning program!

The tasks

CPE is a given. As such, it forms the most basic level of a firm-wide learning program. CPE must be scheduled, tracked and reported. Hopefully, the education received contributes to improved job performance, and not just to checking off an annual requirement.

But let's move quickly beyond CPE and address some of the other components of firm-wide learning that leading firms have adopted.

Professional task training is a second level of essential learning. Tax laws change, software changes with each update, and new regulations change how engagements must be performed. For compliance reasons alone, firms must provide adequate opportunities to learn and master these recurring changes. That, too, is part of a firm-wide learning program, but still only a small part.

What are the best firms in the country doing to go beyond these basics?

In January, Boomer Consulting hosted its annual Learning Symposium. Nearly 25 firms, as well as representatives of the American Institute of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, and a partner of the Maryland Association of CPAs, attended and shared the lessons they have learned and the best practices they have put into place. From this gathering, it became very clear that these leading firms have turned to training and education as a strategic tool for growth and profitability. Here are some of the programs that they are putting into place today.

Software skills

Today's software is far more complex than what was in place even a few years ago. Even the most common programs, such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and the like, have features for collaboration, Web publishing and data sharing with other applications that greatly extend their power.

This power, however, comes at a price. Many of these powerful features are not intuitive, and require training to take full advantage of their capabilities. In addition, there are so many capabilities in these programs that learning them all could take the lifetime of the program. Thus, the best firms have adopted training programs that identify the most critical and valuable capabilities of the software they use, then assess the current skill level of the users, and design training curricula that target the shortfall. The result is empowered users who know how to use the best features of the software, and have learned them in the most efficient way possible.

These firms have all realized the advantages of targeted training over the learn-by-experimentation method. This software training doesn't just stop with Microsoft Office. Audit, tax and accounting applications fall in the same category, with the same benefits from targeted training.

Hardware and networking

There was a time when this was the realm of the network administrator. However, today's mobile accounting workforce is often equipped with notebook computers, wireless networking capabilities and the need to connect to the firm's network resources from anywhere at any time. Often, audit teams and other workgroups will need to establish temporary networks to share files, printers and other resources while on the job at a client site.

All of this implies a need for increased security, virus/spam/ spyware protection, and a sense of safe best practices when using public Internet connections. Once again, these skills are too important to be left to individual experimentation; therefore, the best firms have incorporated them into the learning curriculum.

Soft skills

Perhaps the greatest revelation from the Learning Symposium was the degree to which leading firms are incorporating "soft skills" into their learning programs. These include mandatory topics such as sexual harassment or sensitivity training, but also include customer service, marketing, public speaking, business writing, business etiquette and a host of others.

Firms are recognizing that there is a tangible payoff from building these abilities in employees of all ages at all levels. Like any initiative, however, it won't happen unless it is clearly built into the comprehensive learning program.

Career development

These various categories of learning requirements seem to come together in career development plans. These plans outline the learning programs that an employee will follow, beginning with their arrival at the firm and progressing through the logical promotion sequence of a career in the business.

In the early days, they will likely be heavy in skill training, and coaching on the culture of the firm. As an individual progresses over time, the focus will shift toward supervision, business development and project management. At the partner level, the focus will likely be on coaching, mentoring and leadership for the firm.

To ensure that action occurs through accountability, these development plans should be integrated with the firm's review and evaluation model.

It should be noted that several firms at the conference recognized these career development plans as a strong tool in recruiting and retention. At the entry level, college students were impressed by what they could expect to learn if they joined the firm, and the much-sought-after mid-level employees recognized the development afforded by their firm as a positive incentive to stay there and reduce expensive turnover.

The job

Clearly, building a learning program like this for a firm doesn't just happen. Someone has to be in charge and have the skills to do it right. That person may go by various job titles, but for simplicity, let's call her the director of firm-wide learning.

Not so long ago, firms began to realize that they needed a trainer to raise the level of software skills in the firm. These early trainers did most, if not all, of the hands-on instruction and were focused on direct skill transfer. As firms realized the value of these trainers, they began to take on additional responsibility and became training coordinators. Now, some of the focus has shifted from direct delivery of training to the coordination of training requirements and training resources.

Firms might use a tax manager to train new staff on their tax software, but the training coordinator arranges for the time, materials and other resources to facilitate the training, as well as helping develop the targeted list of tasks to be mastered. As firms began to adopt some of the learning objectives outlined above, the focus shifted again from task-oriented skill training to broader educational objectives, and training became a broader orientation towards learning. Today the director of firm-wide learning will likely be responsible for the entire program, from skill training to soft skills to career development.

Where do these people come from?

Those attending the Learning Symposium had broad and varied backgrounds. A few were accountants who had drifted into the learning arena, while others were former schoolteachers or had backgrounds of training in industry. Many are trained as adult educators, with histories of curriculum development and educational design for community colleges or other adult learning environments behind them.

The common thread, however, is that they were recognized within their firms as having unique skill sets and unique job requirements. And most of their work is internal to the firm. That means that they are often classed as "overhead," and don't perform much, if any, billable work. The best firms, however, see this overhead as a strategic advantage, and have demonstrated a willingness to invest in someone to perform this role and "sharpen the axe" for everyone else.

The model

So, then, what does a firm-wide learning program look like? Based upon the models we saw at the Boomer Learning Symposium, it will have certain characteristics.

There will be a director of firm-wide learning. This is a full-time position, largely non-billable, who reports to an influential person within the firm. This might be the human resources director, a partner, or perhaps the management committee. The learning director is responsible for the entire scope of the training and education program in the firm.

That doesn't mean that this person teaches all the classes. In fact, some of the learning directors at the conference reported spending as little as 20 percent of their time in classroom or direct training. Instead, their focus was on needs assessment, curriculum design and training support. Subject matter experts from within the firm or selected outside trainers might be brought in to teach the classes, but the learning director is responsible for coordinating it all.

The learning director also develops, in conjunction with human resources and the leadership of the firm, the career development plans. These career development plans form the basis for annual individualized learning plans focused on the job needs or career goals of employees. Endorsed by both employee and supervisor, these annual learning plans become part of the evaluation process.

As mentioned above, a good firm-wide learning program is a tool for recruiting and retention. Information about it, and the opportunities to talk to staff about how it benefits them, should be built into the human resources recruiting plan. Current employees should be reminded periodically of how the program is enhancing their careers and personal goals, and why the firm remains the choice place to stay and work.

Finally, the leadership of the firm will want to embrace this learning program as a strategic asset and change agent for the business. Firms with solid learning programs will operate more smoothly, be more competitive, and be seen as better places to work than those firms that don't. Those advantages, in turn, will flow directly or indirectly to greater profitability for the owners who endorse them.

Does your company have a firm-wide learning program?

It should.

Kenneth M. McCall, MBA, is a senior consultant at technology and management advisory concern Boomer Consulting Inc. Reach him at (888) 266-6375 ext. 15 or at ken@boomer.com.

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