Move Forward from 2020

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Learning leaders in the accounting profession did a remarkable job responding to the unprecedented challenges cause by the pandemic.  Learning teams had to pivot quickly to an online curriculum, converting untold hours of CPE credit from live-seminar training.  Now that you’ve achieved the immediate goal—survival—what’s next for learning?

It’s been said that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” which we take to mean that a crisis gives you an opportunity to do things you weren’t able to do before.  For years, accounting firms have envisioned a robust remote learning offering; the pandemic created the imperative to make that happen.  But more remains to be done, and our view is that now is the time to build on the successes from last year.

Here are three opportunities for 2021 that CPA firm partners and learning leaders should address.

What to do with the distance learning windfall?

Shifting training from in-person to distance learning saved firms tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel, meeting space and the entertainment costs usually that typically accompany out of the office training.  Last year this windfall was used to offset steep declines in revenue and necessary investments in other areas of the business like remote communication technologies.

What will firms do this year?  Once the business fully absorbs the costs of the pandemic, what is the opportunity created by the shift to distance learning?

Is it a chance to permanently reduce the training budget and increase profit per partner?

Or is it an opportunity to reinvest in other areas of the business, including professional development and training?

Of course, we’d advocate hard to reinvest the bulk of the savings in learning to fund the development of strategic organizational competencies and improve training content and delivery.  But that’s not our decision to make.

Our only advice is for the firm to have the discussion and be intentional in its choice.  They should provide a seat at the table for learning leaders and require you to present a compelling business case for reinvestment.  At a minimum, you should come to the table with:

  • The amount saved by shifting to distance learning last year.  Remember that you’re talking to accountants, so your number should be accurate.  Consider enlisting the help of a supportive firm professional to help you think through how best to quantify the savings.
  • A prioritized list of how you would like to reinvest that savings over the next 2-3 years.
  • For all high priority items, a clear and compelling description of the economic benefit to the firm and how that benefit will be measured.

Even you don’t get all you want, there is value in having a seat at the table of  vigorous strategic discussion.

Re-balance curriculum modalities

After years of delivering training mostly through in-person seminars and webcasts, you now have first hand experience of other modes of deliveries.  Some of the 2020 training may have been effective, others not so much.

The important thing is develop a clear understanding of which types of training is best suited for distance learning (synchronous and asynchronous) and which is best delivered in person.  You should articulate and—dare I say—document—your observations and conclusions about modality and learning effectiveness.  The documentation is important because it

  • The very act of writing creates clarity
  • Allows for the communication of your thinking to business leaders
  • Provides the basis for long-term planning and implementation

Last year provided learning teams with a variety of new delivery options.  No delivery option will “check all the boxes.”  The work before you now is to create a curriculum across multiple modalities that strikes the right balance between learning effectiveness, business needs and cost.

2020 is not the benchmark

Recognize the 2020 achievement for what it was—a first step at delivering distance learning, achieved under the most difficult of circumstances.  Not insignificant by any means, but only a first step.  Look to build momentum for your online learning curriculum by improving your offering in these important ways.

  • Learning effectiveness.  We heard about a lot of lo-o-o-o-ng Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings and webcasts from 2020.  Four-(or six- or eight-) hour webcasts were functional, but were the effective?  Is that something you’d sit through?  Learners were inclined to be generous with their feedback on these experiences, recognizing that you and your team did a great job just to make training available.  But that tolerance has an expiration date.  In-class seminars that are simply migrated to an internet-based platform will not wear well for very long.

Organizations should continue to research and explore the distance learning options available through most modern learning management systems or learning experience platforms.  If the best that traditional CPE vendors can offer is long-form webcasts, it’s worth investigating other options.

  • Learning processes.  The rapid shift to distance learning required improvisation and experimentation in how courses were developed (or sourced from 3rd parties), delivered, and deployed.  Take note of which processes worked and which need improvement.  If distance learning is to be a part of your curriculum going forward, then your team must become proficient in that format across all elements of the ADDIE model.

Also pay attention to the operational aspects of delivering the training.  In addition to the LMS, you should pay particular attention to how you market and communicate course offerings.  The shift to distance learning in 2020 required additional communications to prepare your learners for the new class format.  Research shows that a learner’s expectations coming in to class have a direct impact on learning outcomes.  (We have experienced this impact first hand on multiple occasions).  The expanded communication last year provide lessons on how tweak internal communications to more effectively prepare participants to have a successful learning experience.

Start small

We are all weary and so ready to say goodbye to 2020.  The last thing many of us want to do is be overwhelmed by more change in 2021.

So start small.  Even if you commit to just one small change in the coming year that could be a win.  The success of one small change can be a catalyst for another, and in time with commitment and a little good fortune you’ll end up making a big difference.

The time is right for change.  It would be a shame to waste this crisis.

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