Most of the time in this column, discussion of the best or most promising technology tools is a primary source of interest. However, every once in a while a return to fundamentals is needed. One fundamental that has been consistently problematic for all sizes of firms is training. Frequently the need for training is either ignored, put off, or simply done poorly. Rarely do we see training done right. Why is that?
You need a learning program!
Derek Bok, an attorney and former President of Harvard, is attributed with the phrase, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” We certainly note this issue in CPA firms and industry businesses alike. Frequently, simple tasks that would be easy to accomplish in Microsoft Office or in tools from companies like Wolters Kluwer CCH, Thomson Reuters, Intuit or CaseWare are done in a backwards and time consuming fashion. One of the largest time wasters is ineffective use of Microsoft Outlook. Properly, efficiently and quickly handling email, calendar appointments and communications with others should be convenient and fast when using this product.
Coming in at a close second is inefficient use of Microsoft Word. You may have clerical support to start or finish a document, but electronic review is frequently the easiest and fastest way to express your thinking, or add your editing or modifications to a document. Professionals frequently believe that they “know enough” to use the tools, and become blind to the amount of time squandered and the reduction in realization caused by excessive soft and hard hours consumed.
Some content offered through free webinars and hands-on training providers is too generic and too sales-laden to apply directly to many organizations’ needs. Simply learning more about Outlook or Word will help the most elementary of users, but the more advanced users need more than basic technologies. Consider the skills needed by each position and individual. These needs can be scheduled into topics and consolidated into courses that can be taken for CPE (Continuing Professional Education) credit or simply used to advance one’s knowledge.
For example, a tax professional has needs for both entry level and medium level Excel skills such as tables and flash fill. An audit professional has needs for more advanced Excel skill such as Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) queries. Out of the hundreds of Excel features available, there are specific Excel skills that can be applied to routine, repeatable client services. Each position and each person should have an education plan. You can request a sample learning grid by contacting the author directly at email@example.com .
Let’s cite an alternate example with the QuickBooks desktop product. As most of you probably know, the ability to create a Chart of Accounts without account numbers is a usability feature for end-users that makes it “easier” to use QuickBooks. However, accounting professionals need and use account numbers. Some industries, such as healthcare, have recommended chart of account structures. For consistency, effectiveness and efficiency, having a consistent chart of accounts across an entire client base that can be used for any new client setup greatly simplifies the onboarding process from a firm’s perspective AND the client gets the benefit of an account number structure that works effectively for their business.
Unfortunately, a significant number of professionals do not know about the easy way to clean up account numbers while preserving transactional detail in QuickBooks using the Excel export feature. This feature has been in the product for years, and it allows the user to change account numbers and then re-import them into QuickBooks. When questioned, accounting professionals rarely know about the feature, much less how to use it. This becomes more of an issue when the firm creates reports or performs compilations, reviews or audits using these QuickBooks files because of the complications of mapping the client data to programs like Engagement CS, CCH Engagement or CaseWare. Business tax returns can be prepared more quickly when chart of account mapping is done properly. Useful reporting and meaningful dashboards are easier to create with consistent and proper chart of account setup.
Unfortunately, every product we encounter has a learning curve. Some of us learn quickly, some more slowly, and learners have different learning styles.
According to the book, Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach, by Rita and Kenneth Dunn, learners use three modalities: visual, auditory or kinesthetic (physical, hands-on) methods. It is best to teach to the student’s learning method, and in most situations you have a mix of learning styles. Accountants tend to be more kinesthetic than the majority of the population. Consider how your firm offers training, and work on creating content that addresses each team member’s learning style.
Who is doing innovative work for accounting firms? The good news is that a number of providers have content that can be helpful. Boomer Consulting has their Learning Advantage (www.boomer.com/?traininglearning) and CPE courses are available through your state CPA society. Custom on-site CPE courses are offered through K2 Enterprises (www.k2e.com/training/on-site-training) in addition to other worthy technology training providers. It is our belief that the money spent on good training comes back within 60 days, and continues to pay off forever.
An appropriate training strategy for IT technical staff is another concern. One of the more expensive and neglected areas of training is for upgrading your IT team’s skill set. Today, having expertise in Microsoft Server 2012, Microsoft Active Directory, Microsoft SQL, VMware, Citrix, Storage Area Network maintenance, firewall and wireless configuration as well as appropriate switch setup knowledge such as trunking and segmentation would be minimal infrastructure skill sets. Having application knowledge in Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, SQL Reporting Services, Mobile Device Management, PCI, and your specific applications would be a definite bonus. Sources for one-on-one in-house training include NMGI (www.nmgi.com/services/business-it-consulting) and for classroom training we suggest Global Knowledge (www.globalknowledge.com).
Interacting with other technicians promotes the correct way to complete tasks, not the “book” or “test” way. Online or self-study courses are minimally effective for applicable knowledge in IT. For IT technicians, we prefer that they obtain and maintain certifications, but this does not guarantee that they can complete their tasks knowledgeably. The same applies for IT contractors. Unfortunately, unless you have good IT expertise yourself, you will not be able to discern the skill level of your internal or external IT teams.
And of course, it could almost go without saying that appropriate client service skills, phone etiquette, cross selling knowledge, security practices and general business expertise are needed by most people in a professional organization. Don’t overlook training opportunities for these skills as well.
Make a management commitment to fund training on a consistent basis. Build a plan, teach firm-centric content and record the content on video or with technical products like Camtasia to build a knowledge base library, test for completion, and revise your plan at least annually. Most firms report that they don’t notice the results from training initially although changes are taking place in the organization. With consistent attention to training, the culture and productivity changes in subtle ways for the good.
Eventually, your entire team’s expertise level rises…a rising tide lifts all boats. You will find yourself with new opportunities because your entire team’s skills are better and work is getting completed more quickly and more accurately with less effort. And isn’t that a great outcome?
Randy Johnston is executive vice president and partner of K2 Enterprises and Network Management Group, Inc.
He is a nationally recognized educator, consultant and writer with over 30 years’ experience. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.