Jennifer Wilson
Turn learning into a competitive advantage

Ten areas of focus can set your firm apart.

December 10, 2012
by Jennifer Wilson


“Any firm that can outperform its competition in building and creating skills will gain a significant competitive advantage.”

David Maister 
True Professionalism

The accounting profession stands on the leading edge of a tidal wave of firm partners moving into their retirement years. With this succession surge set to change the face of accounting, the ability to transfer knowledge, build skills, and compress learning will become a critical success factor that sets firms apart.

When ConvergenceCoaching was offered the opportunity to partner with the AICPA and CPA2Biz to study learning in the profession and develop a white paper titled The Evolution of CPA Firm Learning, we jumped at the chance. The opportunity to explore the ways firms establish a culture of learning provided insights into methods and mindsets that can give a firm a competitive edge.

After reviewing survey data, researching trends, and interviewing five firms generous with their time and access, we identified 10 areas that distinguish great learning organizations. They are:

  1. Whether learning is seen—and managed—as a strategic process. Firms that treat learning as strategic discuss it at the partner table, identify a central learning leader (even if not dedicated full time), and invest more in learning than firms that do not make learning a strategic priority. A learning leader is an administrator, human resources manager, service-line leader, or, in large firms, an executive dedicated to overseeing the firm’s learning program. Learning leaders are responsible for devising and executing the firm’s learning strategy.
  2. The degree to which learning objectives tie to a firm’s core strategies. Great learning organizations communicate their strategies to their learning leaders and ensure that learning investments support their vision.
  3. The transition to focus less on “getting CPE in” and more on the transfer of true learning to develop new skills, behaviors, and knowledge. Public accounting firms traditionally have focused their learning efforts on providing their professionals with technical education through trips to conferences, in-house training programs, or web seminars and webcasts. While technical education remains essential, an increased emphasis is being placed on teaching “soft” skills such as leadership, management, and communication.
  4. How much influence learners have over their learning plans. Firms that allow their learners to actively participate in choosing their learning methods and developing their learning plans experience higher learner engagement and better results. A good structure for this is one in which learners set their learning goals for the year, with input from direct supervisors, and then make known their preferred learning methods (conferences, self-study web courses, etc.) The learning leader then works with the learners and their supervisors to develop plans that accommodate the learners’ goals and learning preferences.
  5. The balance of leadership skills delivered compared with technical skills, and at what level they are delivered. Learning organizations deliver leadership programs early, not “saving” these programs until people reach higher levels.
  6. The variety of learning methods offered. As a firm’s learning function matures, it offers more options in a variety of formats, including online, self-study, experiential, and informal learning, appealing to a variety of learning styles and preferences.
  7. How well learning activities tie to developing desired competencies. Firms gain a competitive advantage by defining the skills required at each level for each discipline and then linking their learning investments to build these competencies.
  8. The impact of technology on the firm’s learning processes. Learning organizations find ways to leverage technology to support learning, including using a learning management system to broaden delivery methods, enhance CPE tracking, and manage learning data.
  9. Whether a firm links rewards to learning. Firms with great learning programs tie partner and other compensation to learning and people development.
  10. The example a firm’s leadership sets related to learning. Great learning organizations have leaders who actively participate in learning, both as instructors and as lifelong learners. These firms expect people at all levels and all ages to strive to improve, grow, and learn.

How does your firm stack up in these 10 areas? Identify one area where you can go deeper in learning in 2013 and stand apart from the rest.

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Jennifer Wilson is a partner and co-founder of ConvergenceCoaching LLC, a leadership and marketing consulting and coaching firm that helps leaders achieve success.