All of us are aware that we are living in an environment of accelerating technological change and that if we can’t adapt our accounting practices to take advantage of these business and technological opportunities we will certainly find our firms at a competitive disadvantage in the future. So, what is your firm doing about this today? The solution is not to wait and see, but to develop a proactive effort to identify, implement and standardize best practices and tools by institutionalizing a culture of learning. Below we list our top tips that promote your firm building an effective learning culture.
- Owner Buy-in: It is critical that owners understand the benefits of standardization and know that there is a significant ROI on the firm’s learning investment if properly implemented. In every firm there are departmental personnel that are 10%, 20%, 30% or more efficient than peers as they have optimized the steps of a specific production process. If a portion of this efficiency can be captured and transferred to other staff it will not only improve each staff person’s productivity immediately, but also firmwide productivity as these standards will make it easier to share work and hold personnel accountable to those standards in the future. Owners must realize that well utilized learning time can be the most profitable hours spent as the benefits multiply the more times they are enacted.
- Adequate Resources: Allocating hours to application champions to document and train on best practices should be viewed as valuable as client time and the champions should be given chargeable credit for the hours spent. Best practices point to budgeting not only dollars for conferences and webinars, but hours for documentation and training on those items where the firm needs the most improvement. Firms are often hesitant as their application champions are often the most in demand but allocating two to four hours per week to the effort will allow those champions to meet both the firm’s and client’s needs, as well as preserve their “institutional” knowledge if they were to leave the firm.
- Assess Needs: Ask partners or managers where there is consistent rework and you have the starting point to assessing training needs. Augment this list by asking staff where they see shortfalls in training, and in particular, where they would like to hone their skills and you have the start of a firmwide curriculum.
- Identify Expertise: If you ask your staff who the most knowledgeable Excel, QuickBooks, or BNA Income Tax Planner user is they usually can shout out the names of the personnel that have provided ad hoc training in the past. Firms should ask the IT team for a comprehensive listing of all applications utilized and the number of users for each application to begin identifying expertise. Selecting actual users with experience and those having a keen interest in improving their use of that application trumps firm seniority every time!
- Train the Trainer: It is critical that these application champions have access to evolving knowledge in their area of expertise by reading, participating in webinars, and attending conferences where they can learn about the applications and network with other users and experts. Champions can optimize conference time by reviewing the session descriptions with other departmental members and identifying those topics where the firm has the greatest needs before attending. This also helps in developing specific expectations of what to get out of each session, as well as scheduling time to debrief what they learned with their team after the conference.
- Develop Curriculum: Each of the application experts should create a listing of critical features users of that application must understand to work effectively. The easiest way to create such an index is to walk through a standard engagement or process and capture each step and then determine which steps need to be learned at a basic, intermediate, and advanced level, which lays the groundwork for a formal curriculum.
- Learning Capture: People learn differently so it is important to capture knowledge in a way that fits their learning style but can be leveraged. For readers, having an Adobe document that is key-word searchable and explains the concept step by step is critical, whereas people who are visual also need to see screen captures in the description or watch a training session which can be live or recorded (which benefits “audio” learners).
- Beyond CPE: The majority of internal training has traditionally emphasized the need to meet CPE requirements for professional staff, which needs to change. Today it is just as important to educate personnel on career development, leadership and communication skills, which can be identified by supervisors and managers as part of the review and evaluation process. Firms are finding that individual career development training is as important for job retention as developing expertise in accounting and tax applications.
All of us need to remember that the role of learning is to optimize the capabilities and production of the firm by optimizing the knowledge and skills of firm personnel to better serve clients. Creating a learning culture in today’s rapidly evolving business environment that allows the firm to adapt quicker than peers is most likely one of the last remaining sustainable competitive advantages of the modern CPA firm.
About the Author
Roman H. Kepczyk, CPA.CITP is the Director of Firm Technology Strategy for Right Networks and works exclusively with CPA firms to implement today’s leading best practices and technologies incorporating Lean Six Sigma methodologies to optimize firm production workflows. Roman is also the author of “Quantum of Paperless: A Partner’s Guide to Accounting Firm Optimization” which is available at Amazon.com.