How to Build a Learning Culture in Your Firm

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Last Updated September 1, 2023

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CPAs are knowledge workers and the more thoroughly they understand how to utilize their technology and optimize the profession’s best practices to service clients, the more effective and profitable their firms will become. Firms that have made the effort to standardize optimum departmental production processes, proactively educate users, and hold them accountable to those firm standards, simply produce more work per person. We have all seen examples of this concept in our own firms within individuals or small teams that have got it figured out and produce significantly more than their peers working on similar engagements. Imagine if the firm could capture that “superstar” efficiency and transfer it to other users. Leading firms have done so by promoting and building a learning culture. With the accelerating rate of technological evolution that is hitting our profession, this learning culture concept has never been more important and may well be the last sustainable competitive advantage for firms to take advantage. Below are a number of considerations in creating such an environment within your firm.

Getting buy-in from management is critical. While few partners will argue against the importance and necessity of traditional CPE, pulling their most productive users to do “non-billable” research, documentation, and employee training can be a stretch when there are client deadlines to be met. However, which personnel is best suited to standardize firm processes for optimum efficiency? Your best users! Owners must realize that if they can harness those individual’s best practices into firm standards that everyone will improve, and the firm will benefit in the long run for this investment in time. Firms have found that by budgeting hours to specific learning tasks outside of the busy season and targeting a specific number of hours per week, that both the firm’s learning development and client workload requirements can be met. To make these efforts equitable to the professional staff doing the documentation and training, it is recommended that the individuals are given chargeable credit for the hours spent, as these hours can actually be more valuable than client work in the long run.

Another important component of creating a learning culture is to create a training curriculum. This can begin by identifying the applications utilized within the firm to produce work and listing them in a spreadsheet by department including the number of users, which will help set training priorities. This listing should include the firm’s experts (which are usually identified by asking staff who they are) and include external resources where appropriate. In most cases, the designated experts are managers or seniors that utilize the application on a regular basis and may have been previously involved with the evaluation of the program, the initial implementation, and providing staff training.

The next step is to have these firm experts create a listing of the core features that basic users must be aware of before using the application, and key processes to be utilized as they gain experience. Think of creating an index that walks through the process such as the workflow steps to produce a tax return, the steps required to prepare a client invoice, or to process an online payroll. The features that new hires need to be aware of should be part of the onboarding training and most often target the firmwide applications such as Time and Billing, Microsoft Outlook and Office applications, as well as introductions to the firm’s tax, audit, and accounting applications. The process list should then be expanded to intermediate and advanced skills depending on the application. This listing of applications and features can then be utilized to create a needs assessment by having individuals self-evaluate their proficiency and areas where they would like or feel they need additional training. This, in turn, helps solidify the key applications and processes that employees must be proficient in, which creates the firm’s overall training curriculum.

To optimize and promote best practices, they should be captured in a format where personnel can access them, which usually means in a written or video captured format. People learn differently and while some learn by listening to or watching someone, others learn by reading and referencing. Best practices point to capturing best practices in a written format with screen captures explaining the processes that are specific to the firm such as file-naming conventions, directory structures and methods for using the application. Firms can develop manuals in Microsoft Word/PowerPoint and save them in an Adobe PDF format to make them key-word searchable, as well as create an index in an intranet and link videos from recorded training sessions. Capturing training sessions on firm best practices digitally allows them to be accessed again in the future and also institutionalizes that information such that if an expert leaves the firm, their unique training
knowledge and experience are still retained.

Another important component of creating a learning culture is to ensure that your experts’ knowledge and peer resources continue to expand so they are aware of new features and ways of producing work. Firms should proactively review the agendas for association and vendor conferences. Reviewing agendas within their departments will allow them to identify topics and features that would benefit the firm as well as introduce them to external experts and peers when they attend. The added benefit of networking with these peer attendees is that you not only receive independent confirmation of the features but also learn streamlined tips and pitfalls that others have experienced so you are able to implement them more easily. To optimize the value of experts attending external conferences, it is recommended that firms not only review the topical agenda within the department to develop a list of questions but that the firm schedule time the day the expert returns to debrief what they learned while it is still fresh in their minds.

In addition to the hours allocated to designated expert users to capture knowledge, medium and larger firms find that they need an administrative person to coordinate the learning efforts within the firm. The training coordinator/learning officer would handle the administrative components of the learning process such as managing the needs assessment, coordinate training with power users, organizing and storing of documentation, and managing training logistics (equipment, calendar reminders, CPE tracking, etc.).

Technology will continue to evolve and optimizing its use will remain a significant component of CPA firm production. The ability of firms to identify, standardize and implement more effective processes may well be the last sustainable competitive advantage which points out why firms need to develop a learning culture.

This article was originally published for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Copying or distribution without the publisher’s permission is prohibited.

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