Nature or Nurture—Can Critical Thinking Skills Be Taught?

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Reporting from the Digital CPA Conference, Accounting Web took away the following from a panel discussion on recruiting.

Panelists agreed that CPA skills over next 3-5 years would need to be consultative, analytical and data-driven.

We couldn’t agree more.

At this point we’re all preaching to the choir, so the questions firm leaders need to ask are: “Are these skills teachable? If so, then what role can formal training play in developing them?”

Most (but not all) innovation leaders to whom we’ve asked these questions believe that advisory and critical thinking skills can be nurtured and that formal training not only can but must play a role in upskilling. Where firms are getting stuck is in figuring out how teach these skills.

Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

We’re now working with our third CPA firm to redesign and rebuild their staff training programs with an eye toward developing data-based decision making and advisory skills like project management and communication. Here’s what we’ve learned about how to develop these skills in young professionals.

  1. The skills required for digital transformation must be taught within the context of on the job tasks. You can’t lecture a class on an abstract concept like critical thinking and expect them to be able to apply it on the job. We use the classroom to challenge the participants with real life case studies that require them to think critically, analyze data, and solve problems. We teach firm instructors how to improve their own skills, not by lecturing, but by guiding the staff through these cases studies and challenging their thinking.
  2. Mastering skills requires practice and repetition. What does LeBron James do when he’s not performing? He practices. He works to hone his skills. To develop professional level skills requires practice. Your staff are professionals. Use the classroom to give them plenty of practice. We tell our clients that practice should be harder than the game, and that you’d rather have your staff make mistakes in the classroom than on the job at the client. Training has to become a high intensity but low risk environment where staff can go to practice, be coached, and improve their skills.

Innovation in Service Delivery Will Require Innovation in Learning

Firms will not be able to recruit their way out of the upskilling problem. They won’t be able to hire enough people fast enough; training must play a role. The truth is that firms have always wanted their staff to have critical thinking and advisory skills, but traditional training programs have not delivered.

If firms want to innovate, they’re going to have to take a critical look at how they approach training. If they believe that the skills they need can be taught, then they should ask whether their existing training programs support the development of those skills. We suspect not, and that the new frontier in innovation must come from learning.

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