Technical training is fairly well-defined, and learning outcomes fall within a fairly narrow range even with a broad directive like, “Train on the new standard.” Skills training is different. There is no generally accepted standard for problem-solving or data analysis.
When considering the development of new skills, firm leaders should ask questions like:
- What do we want our people to do differently from what they are doing today?
- If a business unit requested help preparing a budget today, how would finance respond? In the future, how do we want them to respond so they deliver higher value to the business unit?
Clarifying the future desired behavior and how it differs from current practice is essential to creating more focused training that is more closely aligned with the organization’s vision. Instead of training on, “How to review a budget,” the organization should refine its objective to train their professionals on, “How to analyze budget assumptions and explore alternatives that would improve a business unit’s performance.”
Strategies for Skills Development
Good technical training goes beyond “death by PowerPoint” and includes exercises that provide the participants a chance to practice the techniques described. Skills training follows the same principle, but execution is more challenging.
As compared to technical training, skills development is more difficult because the outcomes are harder to define. It’s not hard for experienced accountants to agree on what constitutes a “good cash flow projection.” But what do “good problem-solving skills” look like? How do you take one example of good problem-solving and present it in a way that translates across many different problems?
Make the Abstract Concrete
The strategy for developing the future of finance/accounting skills must begin with making the abstract concrete. Your organization may send its staff to off-the-shelf training on any number of future skills. Many of these courses are thoughtful, carefully designed, and taught by talented instructors. But the courses are generic and not specific to the unique challenges of your organization, or in many cases, the professions of finance and accounting.
The underlying argument for this strategy goes something like this—teach our people the generic skill (e.g. critical thinking) and they can figure out how to extract what’s applicable and how to apply it to their job. Unfortunately, making this kind of transition from classroom to job performance is not easy, and typically only a handful of people are able to do it.
These tend to be the organization’s high performers anyway, so the net benefit of the training has a minimal effect on the organization. To be more impactful, the training must impact a greater number of people.
Use Scenarios to Make the Training Specific to Your Organization
It’s fine to use skills training intended for a wide audience, but if that is the route your organization takes, then it should supplement that training to directly address the unique challenges your staff will face at your organization.
We’ve learned that the most effective way to make the generic specific is to work with a focus group to define desired behaviors in a specific situation. For example, consider the preparation of a cash flow projection for the XYZ Division. Present the facts and circumstances modeled after an actual situation at XYZ Division and ask your focus group questions such as:
- If given this assignment today, how would the staff respond?
- What—specifically—do you want them to do differently in the future that would provide insight and advice to XYZ?
- What are the benefits to XYZ if the staff is able to provide this insight and advice?
- What skills are necessary for them to be more consultative in their approach?
The answers to these questions form the basis of your training.
When developing your training, think broadly. Expand your list of stakeholders beyond the usual suspects and consider how you’d like your team to interact with each group. For example, who in your organization uses the XYZ Division cash flow projection? For what purpose? How do you want your team to interact with those stakeholders?
What about the team that captures the raw data used in the analysis? Is there a new kind of relationship you can forge with them? The broader your impact across the organization, the greater your value add.
Think holistically about how you interact with others. Don’t limit yourself to what you want from your staff. Consider the interaction from the stakeholder’s point of view.
What are their expectations? How would they like to work differently with your team? What are their needs, and what do they find valuable? The goal of your team is to be responsive to the needs of your stakeholders. Your training needs to take their perspective into account.
Create Activity-Based Learning
The focus-grouped scenarios become the basis for classroom activities and case studies. Build your lectures around the activities, not the other way around.
Unlike technical training, the point of skills training is not to “get the right answer.” The purpose of skill-building activities is for the participants to practice the skill in a low-risk environment. Sometimes, the most effective learning is when you make a mistake. That’s okay. You’d rather have them make a mistake in the classroom than in front of a client.
Take the time and make the investment to get the right training, and you will be ready for whatever the future brings.