Value of Continuing Education

As I was attending Convergence 2014 with over 1,200 of my fellow CPAs from the Dallas area, I began thinking about the value of Continuing Professional Education (CPE). For a majority of CPAs like me, continuing education has been a requirement from the day we received our license. In some ways it is just another in a long list of compliance requirements we have in our lives – file your taxes, register your vehicle and get your CPE. The reality is so much more than that though.

We live in a world that is constantly changing around us. Some of the changes are more obvious than others. New accounting standards, auditing standards and tax laws occur every year and we receive numerous announcements about the changes. Other changes just seemed to happen without much notice. The move to 24 hour a day connectivity started with dial-up, but now is ubiquitous with smartphones and ever expanding cellular networks. Anyone remember the joy the finding those vacation spots where the cellphone or Blackberry did not work? They are getting as hard to find as someone who still uses a Blackberry these days.

Continuing education may have started out as a regulatory compliance requirement, but today it is a career survival requirement. If you are not keeping up with everything going on in at least in your niche of the profession you will quickly find your skills outdated and your employer or clients ready to find someone else who has kept up with the times. So the question is what have you learned in the last year, month or week?

Our profession recognized decades ago that continuing education is a critical factor in providing the service our clients and employers want from us. I, for one, am very glad that learning something new has become ingrained into our profession. We have a lot of debates about the relevance of historical financial statements, the audit and many other things CPAs do, but without the focus on continuing education I think we would have lost relevance as a profession years ago. Instead, today we are debating the best way to stay relevant; that I a much better place to be.

Future of Learning

The Future of Learning Task Force met for the second time in San Francisco last week and this time focused on technology delivery and impacts on learning. We covered many topics from technology platforms to how technology enables different ways of learning, but there are two I want to spend a little more time on here.

The first is the idea of how technology enables a major paradigm shift in the learning process. The traditional learning process is that a topic is covered for a specified amount of time and at the end of that time you take an assessment, but then, no matter what you get on the assessment, you then go on to the next topic. In this paradigm, the topic and time spent are the fixed elements and the assessment percentage (how much you learned) is the variable. If you think about it, that is not a great way to ensure mastery of skills, especially in topics that are the foundation for the future topics covered (like in math or accounting). This paradigm however was the only logical one to choose in the industrial age when all instruction had to be given in person.

Technology now allows instruction to be recorded and reviewed as many times as needed. As a result, we can change the learning paradigm so that the topic and the assessment score are the fixed elements and the time spent by the learner is the variable. This allows the people who know the topic to move on to the next topic while making sure no one is moved along until they meet the mastery requirement of the topic. Technology also takes away the social stigma of asking a person to keep going over a topic. Even in private tutor situations, people do not want to keep asking someone to cover the same thing. On the other hand people have no problem running a video again and again. You don’t believe me – how many times have you watched your favorite movie or that really cute YouTube cat video?

The second topic is what is broadly referred to as gamification of training. We participated in a couple of exercises and it was amazing how much more exciting the training can be – even on topics you might not think of as exciting. Gamification really means including “game elements” in training. This may mean scoring and competition, constucting the training around a “story” or simply monitoring and giving badges for completion. You don’t think the completion monitor makes a difference? How many of you worked to get the LinkedIn completion bar to 100%? If you did then that game element worked on you to get your profile complete.

The best news about technology is there are lots of people and lots of money working in this technology space. As a profession we won’t need to invent the technology, we will only need to figure out how to utilize it to make the training of the future something we all look forward to taking.

The Future of Professional Education

We just finished up the first Future of Education in the Profession task force meeting and I am very excited and very worried at the same time. There is a tremendous opportunity to really improve training for the profession. We have the technology available to do many different things that have been scientifically shown to result in better learning with increased retention over the long haul. We also have a great legacy of requiring ongoing learning to continue to be a CPA, but that is also the scariest part.

That legacy of learning has become compliance focused instead of learning focused with learners seeking the lowest cost (or free) “hours” to meet the 40 hour a year compliance requirement without any regard to actually learning anything. We can change the way courses are designed, moving to a flipped classroom and using an outcomes based design process in a MOOC format (if your interested in what those are, why don’t you do some on demand learning and look them up), but if we, the members of the profession, don’t want to get back to the true meaning of continuing education – LEARNING something – then all the changes in the world to the courses won’t result in a better, more competent profession.

When was the last time you deliberately planned your training for the year? When was the last time you assessed your skills and competencies? When was the last time you actually forced your boss to tell you what you need to learn (not what training course to take) to get that promotion you want? I venture to guess most of you put more time into planning your one week summer vacation than planning your week worth of training for the coming year. Vacations are important, but that certainly seems backwards to me.

So I challenge all of you to take the first step in improving the quality of the continuing education you receive by actually planning the training you will take for the coming year to have a purpose – to make you more competent. If you do that I bet you will find the real quality training that exists and the more people take that quality training, the more it will be offered.

More on CPE

Following up on my CPE blog from a couple of weeks ago I noticed a recent poll of B&I members on CPE.  The results showed B&I members who work for companies paying for any CPE have dropped from 46% to 26% in last 6 years, and full reimbursement dropped from 29% to 5%. This got me thinking about the employers we work for. They say they value the CPA credential but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. 

In my last blog on this subject I talked about making a plan for your learning each year.  If employers are not paying, that makes planning even more important.  It also makes those plans more personal.  When my employer pays for my CPE, I feel the need to make sure that CPE applies to my current job or the next job the company is looking to move me into.  When I am paying for my own CPE I don’t feel that same compulsion. 

 Over time I think this will have two impacts on employers.  One is equally negative on individuals, but the other hits only the employer. 

The first impact is that B&I CPAs are considering letting their license expire.  This is not a route I recommend, but I see it too often in my colleagues.  Once they are out of public accounting and a CPA license is no longer required, they don’t feel the need to maintain their license.  I agree that an active license is no longer required to do the job, but an active license still represents something very important.  It represents a commitment to abiding by a code of ethics.  It represents a commitment to putting the public interest above personal gain.  It represents a commitment to continual improvement of skills and knowledge.

The last point is the negative for both the employer and employee.  Our companies value us as CPAs because of our skills and knowledge.  Without CPE that knowledge quickly becomes stale and the skills atrophy.  The employer is not getting what they are paying for and the employee quickly loses their edge and ability to advance their career.

The second impact relates to those that decide to maintain their license and pay for their CPE. As I mentioned, CPAs will take courses to advance their career, maybe for their current employer, but all too often for the next employer.  This is the unintended or short-sighted negative for the employer who decides to stop paying for CPE.  It is one more nail in the coffin of loyalty between employer and employee.  As one young CPA mentioned at the recent AICPA Council meeting, “what are you willing to invest in me?”

Tis the Season (for CPE)

As a CPA, you can always tell the end of tax season even if you don’t complete one tax return and your calendar is missing.  You can tell because your mailbox – both the postal version and the electronic version – starts getting filled up with CPE catalogs.  Of course you do probably need to look outside to see if the leaves are green or red to be sure exactly what time of year it is because one tax season end is April and the other is October and the CPE catalogs come in droves after both deadlines.

The question for you is which time of year do you actually look at the CPE catalogs?  Is it in the spring when you can plan your CPE approach for the year or is it late in the year when you are just looking for hours to comply with your state licensure requirements? My recommendation is to take advantage of all of the catalogs you are receiving now to put together a proactive CPE plan that will actually increase your skills during the coming year.

The first step to putting together a CPE plan is to look at your needs.  Are there areas you need to improve on in the coming year?  You might look back at those annual reviews you quickly filed away in the rush to get all of that year-end work done for some ideas.  Ideas can also come from looking at your work goals and plans for the coming year.  Did you get new duties in the last few months that will require new knowledge or skills?  Is there a new standard that directly impacts your company or job? Is there a promotion or new set of duties you will be striving to obtain in the coming year?  All of these provide fertile ground for growing ideas of CPE that will enhance your career rather than simply meeting the state mandated minimum.

The second step is then to search for those CPE opportunities that meet the needs you laid out above.  I know too many of you have limited or no help from your employer in paying for quality CPE.  That creates is own set of dilemmas, but even those can be overcome with a well thought-out plan.  First off, by planning ahead you can maximize the use of low or no cost CPE opportunities that come along.  My home Chapter here in Texas has an annual free CPE day. (OK, you have to pay for lunch, but who is going to quibble over a few bucks when you get 8 hours of CPE.)  With a CPE plan in place, I can choose the sessions that best fit my needs for the coming year while at the same time keeping my cost to a minimum.

Of course sometimes you still have to pay to get the CPE you really need to improve your skills.  By planning ahead you can find the right sessions in or close to your city minimizing the travel costs which all too often can be as much or more than the course or conference itself.  In addition you can look for a course with the right expert on the subject or a presenter that you know will make it worth your time and money rather than taking a leap of faith.

Really, CPE should be no different then everything else we CPAs do.  We plan and organize the monthly, quarterly and annual reporting process for our companies, we put together plans for new system or process implements and we even we put together personal financial plans for our clients and ourselves.  Isn’t your career worthy of some of that planning effort as well?  Planning your CPE approach for the year is one simple step you can take toward being more proactive in planning your career.  I hope you will take advantage of all of the CPE catalogs you are receiving now that tax season is over to spend a little time doing that planning.