Learning for the Future

CPE must change to meet the new challenges facing the profession.

At the end of the first phase of the CPA Vision Process, delegates from the countrys 50 states and three jurisdictions emerged from the National Future Forum with lists of the accounting professions top-five values, services, competencies and issues (see sidebar). Topping the list of values is a reaffirmed commitment to continuing education and lifelong learning, stated as follows: CPAs highly value continuing education beyond certification and believe it is important to continuously acquire new skills and knowledge.

Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.
John F. Kennedy

This commitmentregarded by some as a hallmark of the professionwill prove vital to developing the core competencies, providing the core services and successfully confronting the key issues identified through the Vision Process.

The Vision Process is defining a new ballgame, with a new playing field, new competitors and new rules. Getting in shape will require a new training regimena more integrated approach to continuing professional education that goes well beyond technical updates.

To get a glimpse of what impact this change initiative will have on how the profession approaches CPE, the Journal talked with representatives from three state societies.

CPE traditionally has been driven by the regulatory modelthe old tax-audit mentality, says Tom Hood, executive director of the Maryland Association of CPAs. The Vision Process has helped surface the need to develop broad-based skill sets in areas such as communications, strategic thinking, negotiating and leadership as well as to cultivate a broader business perspective.

Hood, a former industry CFO, is excited by the fact that CPE is shifting its focus from individual courses to competenciesfrom incremental improvement to long-term added valuesomething he regards as essential if CPAs are to achieve the vision glimpsed through the Vision Process.

Competencies are focused on skill sets needed for success in todays marketplace, not just enhancing technical proficiency, he says. Developing a competency in leadership, for example, involves practical application on the job or as a volunteer, not just sitting in a classroom.

Now that weve gone public with our core competencies, I hope more and more people will offer the appropriate training, which could incorporate hands-on experience with peer groups, computer-based simulations, and other training customized to the individuals level at a point in time.

Hood is quick to caution that until state boards of accountancy are comfortable with competency-focused CPE, CPAs wont be comfortable taking those credits. For most CPAs, whether in industry or public practice, CPE is a cost-based decision, he observes. You take the hours you need to meet the regulatory requirements. Only after fulfilling your 80 hours will you take courses in other areas. I acquired many of the skills I needed to survive as an industry CPA through training programs that didnt count toward my CPE qualifications. In short, there may not be enough initial demand to drive new program development.

Thats the scary part of it, says Hood. The burden is on the state societies to get regulators to accept courses that promote development of skills beyond tax and audit as qualifying for normal CPE. In Maryland, were working hard to convince our state board that CPAs in public practice as well as industry are currently required to have these kinds of skills in consulting for their clients. And if practicing CPAs are being paid to provide such services, theres a public interest in ensuring that they have the appropriate competencies.

As a CPA, Hood welcomes the reaffirmation of the commitment to lifelong learning thats come out of the Vision Process. It creates tremendous opportunities for us at the state societies and for the AICPA as CPE providers to help build this profession in the 21st century.

I think there are going to be major changes over the next year, says Lucretia Mattson, CPA, newly sworn-in president of the Wisconsin Institute of CPAs and a professor of accountancy at the University of WisconsinEau Claire. State societies and vendors will have to develop educational resources more swiftly in response to new developments and the rapidly expanding knowledge base. These providers cant continue to take a year to develop a program if the profession expects to bring new assurance services, such as WebTrust and Elder Care, online quickly. CPAs need to come up to speed fast.

As the profession offers more of these value-added services, we need to have a broader understanding of business in general, observes Mattson, who also practices as a certified financial planner in the accounting firm of Bernicke & Associates, Ltd., in Eau Claire. And as we become more globally oriented in practice, we need to know about changes in tax law and accounting standards in the countries where our clients do business, how those laws and standards interact with ours as well as what the implications are for our clients. Even practitioners in small towns need to be up-to-date in these areas.

Mattson sees the need for shorter, more focused and specialized courses to augment the current one- and two-day seminars, which generally cover a variety of topics. State societies need to take advantage of new delivery mechanisms, such as tele- and videoconferencing and online programming, she adds. Sessions could involve CPAs from around the countryor the world.

Technology has created mechanisms for education as well as the need for it. Its almost a Catch-22. Colleges, universities and other organizations may end up capitalizing on this by providing the technological infrastructure that professional associations often lack. Were already seeing this in Wisconsineven in sparsely populated areas.

The Wisconsin CPA thinks state societies and programming providers-vendors will come under increasing pressure. State societies that currently dont develop their own programming will need to take a leadership role with vendors, specifying what topics and areas need to be developed. Theyll also need to do a better job of acting as a clearinghouse to help members find educational opportunities that meet their specific needs. Vendors, on the other hand, will need to produce the kinds of educational resources that meet the professions changing needs.

Mattson believes CPE measurement systems also will need to changean area the AICPA CPE standards subcommittee has been addressing for a number of years. Rather than basing credit on the number of hours spent in a classroom, were looking at ways to measure what really matters: the knowledge gained and how it can be applied.

Learning vs. Earning
Moving to a competency-based model for CPE that measures outcome instead of input the acquisition of useful knowledge vs. hours spent in a classroomwas the primary subject of the National Association of State Boards of Accountancys National CPE Conference in March. It also has been the focus of a major initiative undertaken by the AICPA CPE standards subcommittee. For more information on a competency model developed for members in business and industry, click on Center for Excellence in Financial Management (CEFM) at the Institutes Web site: www.aicpa.org/cefm .

For the Vision Process to be truly meaningful and give CPAs permission to venture into what will be new territory for some, there has to be a new tool kit of learning materials to help them, says Cheryl Langley, executive vice-president of the Oregon Society of CPAs. In terms of meeting the professions future needs, CPE is behind the curve.

Weve got to develop products that help us let CPAs know its OK to embrace new services, Langley says. We have to change mind-sets, habits and approaches to addressing customers. We need to build skills that increase the CPAs comfort level in advising customers on the impact of technology. Almost daily, I get calls from members looking for training in the year 2000 issue because clients expect them to provide answers and solutions.

Langley, who was in charge of CPE at the Oregon society for five years, concurs with Mattson that the professions expanded range of services will require specialized courses, new formats and faster course development. She also agrees that technology will be a driving force, as both subject and delivery mechanism. In the latter role, she believes it will create competition for the state societies.

Our buggy-whip approachhiring someone to stand up in front of a group of people to deliver a coursedoesnt provide members with the flexibility to learn on the fly, says Langley. Using technology to deliver CPE will add another layer of expense beyond books and teachers. But if we dont make the change, our members will look to other providers.

The issue of cost is clearly top-of-mind with Langley, who cites a variety of factors that will challenge state societies as they change their CPE mix and focus. CPE has matured as a market. At the same time, its become more expensive to develop courses and materials, she observes. As profitability has shrunk, so has the pool of vendors. The successful ones occupy niches, such as tax changes. Finding qualified providers willing to make the up-front investment to research and develop new courses and then market them through state societies at a competitive price is a real challenge.

Langley is concerned that new methods of measurementas well as deliverymay add layers of cost and complexity to educational programming. We receive complaints that our course offerings are already too expensive, she says. Well have to find ways to manage the added costs so we can compete with for-profit providers. CPE accounts for a significant portion of the state societies annual budgets, even though its become a flat market, and we would like to remain the premier retailers. CPE is one of the top services state societies use to attract and retain members. And we know from surveys that members of the Oregon society regard it as one of the top-three services we provide.

CATHERINE L. CARLOZZI is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer based in New Jersey. She formerly served as associate national director of publications at Laventhol & Horwath.


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