Coronavirus will force more CPA firms to shift to distance learning

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For years accounting firms have tried to realize the benefits of distance learning. The cost savings alone are a compelling reason to replace live seminar training with remote delivery.

The results to date have been largely disappointing. Many firms met the distance learning challenge by just streaming and recording their live seminars for a remote audience. Webcasting may be the easiest way to repackage live seminar training for remote delivery, but it’s also the least effective. Without the compulsion to focus and interact that comes from being in the same room as your trainer, many participants simply leave the webcast playing in the background while they catch up on other work.

Thanks to COVID-19, we find ourselves in a time when all learning is distance learning. Firms know that they must keep their professionals compliant, and the instinct for many will be to pull together a solution based on the familiar formats described above. It’s an easy and expedient answer, but is it the best option?

Consider that the entire firm now sees that better options exist. In their dual role as CPA and home school parent, professionals have now seen their collegiate children studying a foreign language or holding a biology lab remotely over Blackboard. Meanwhile, their younger children are working on math problems in teams on Google Classroom, and may even have access to their teachers to ask questions and interact in real time. To stave off boredom, they themselves might be taking a class through Coursera or a virtual tour of a famous museum.

Having experienced these enriching and engaging online learning experiences, when it comes time for them to “get their CPE” remotely via webcast, their response is likely to be, “We have to do better than this.”

To frame the issue as either the status quo or an overhaul of learning delivery sets up a false choice. From a practical standpoint, it would be a mistake to attempt a complete revision of the firm’s existing distance learning curriculum at a time when firm leaders are likely wrestling with business decisions far more consequential in the near term than how their professional staff will get their CPE this year. But at some point down the road, firms that fail to improve their distance learning capabilities will look back on the spring and summer of this year as a missed opportunity.

The argument for innovation

At some point, the “shelter at home” and social distancing rules will be relaxed, and a “new normal” will quickly evolve. One thing we learned after 9/11 and the Great Recession is that business following a transformative event will not be the same as it was before.

Many of the workarounds and innovations employed out of necessity during the upheaval will turn out to be preferable to what the firm did in the past. Client needs and expectations will change, and so will those of the staff. For example, if the firm has been shifting toward having more staff work remotely, that shift will accelerate in a post COVID-19 world.

There is no reason to expect learning to be any different. Certainly, remote learning won’t be the best answer for every situation, but for parts of the curriculum the argument for shifting to a distance learning model will become more persuasive. Firms that are prepared with a high-quality distance learning option will be far ahead of peer firms that just tick the box with recordings of live seminars.

Innovating your learning strategy in the current environment will not be easy, but as difficult as the current situation may be, this period also represents a window of opportunity that will close once lockdowns and social distancing are behind us and we have to focus on the essential client and administrative work that had been placed on hold.

Resistance to change is the biggest barrier to adopting innovation. The first rule of change management is to assemble a powerful team of leaders and champions to convince others of the need to change. Early communications efforts highlight success stories to demonstrate the benefits of change and overcome others who have little appetite for the risk inherent in innovation.

This year, right now, firms that innovate their distance learning will not have to answer the question, “Why are we moving to online learning?” The change is mandated. Your staff and professionals have no choice, which takes defending the status quo off the table.

Current conditions do more than neutralize the counterargument; they actually create a mindset that is ideally suited to innovation. They know that change is coming; the learning group is not to blame. Your learners recognize the unprecedented nature of the times and will be willing to set aside any negative bias they might have toward online training and give your offering a fair shot. They want you to succeed.

That reservoir of goodwill will not last forever. If the firm’s current distance learning model doesn’t really work, and it chooses to cling to that same model once the dust of this pandemic settles, that goodwill capital will evaporate. The goodwill may even be replaced by disdain from those professionals who took a virtual tour of the Louvre and watched their kids use Google Classroom in the midst of a global crisis.

Now is the time to invest in distance learning

Return to the vision described at the start of this article: a distance learning option that actively engages the learner, promotes interaction among colleagues, and achieves high level learning objectives. It sounds great, but how do you get there?

1. Commit to the vision. Having seen that vision in action, you know what is possible. That is huge.

2. Do something small. Pick just a handful of courses and create the distance learning experience you envision. Roll it out to a group of learners who are more tolerant of the uncertainties and false steps that come with innovation.

3. Learn something you can build on. You have many unanswered questions about how to implement your vision. Design this year’s limited rollout in a way that helps you answer the most important of those questions.

4. Constantly refine your vision. Whatever distance learning option you roll out this year will have its successes and its failures. Return to your vision and use your experience to make it sharper and your path forward more well defined.

It may seem counterintuitive to push for innovation in your learning strategy at a time when all norms have been upended. Consider the action taken by one state’s governor: On the same day he announced a 30-day stay-at-home order, he also announced the acceleration of construction of a major bridge and other road projects. Why take on a billion dollars of construction during a health crisis? To take advantage of the light traffic.

The conditions are ripe to make a first, bold move to innovate your learning. Whether it be weeks or months, when the threat of COVID-19 does pass, those CPA firms who have taken that step will be far ahead of those who have not.

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Online learning Coronavirus Accounting education Practice management Work from home