Filling the Knowledge Gap

Using the Competency Assessment Tool to map out a career path.


  • WHAT NEW SKILLS DO YOU NEED if the demands of your job change, you're seeking a promotion or you want to shift your career to a different area of accounting?

  • THE ANSWERS ARE IN CAT— the AICPA's Competency Assessment Tool. CAT is a software program scheduled to be available on the AICPA Web site at

  • CAT INVITES YOU TO ASSESS your current professional competencies. Then, after asking about your career goals, it calculates the skills gap between where you are now and where you want to go.

  • FOR THE MOMENT, however, CAT is programmed to handle an industry competency model only. That means it's relevant only for CPAs currently in industry who wish to expand their careers or for those who plan to take an industry job. Eventually the program will be broadened to include a wide range of career models—such as assurance services, government, information technology and consulting.
KARYN M. WALLER, CPA, is a technical manager in the AICPA industry and management accounting division. If you have questions about CAT, you may e-mail her at Ms. Waller is an employee of the American Institute of CPAs and her views, as expressed in this article, do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA. Official positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.

You may be very competent at your current job, but what new skills will you need if, as expected in this fast-paced business environment, the demands of your job change? Or what if you're seeking a promotion or you want to move into a different area of accounting? The change from public practice to being a CFO in industry, for example, often demands significant new skills.

There is a way for you to identify the specific knowledge and guidance you will need for career development. The answers are in the AICPA's Competency Assessment Tool (CAT). This software program is on the AICPA Web site at

CAT invites you to assess your current professional competencies. Once the data are entered, CAT asks for your career goals. Using the information provided, it calculates the skills gap between where you are now and where you want to go. And it makes recommendations for how to get there.

For the moment, CAT is programmed to handle the industry competency model only. That means it's relevant for CPAs currently in industry who wish to remain there or for those planning to move to an industry position. Eventually the program will be broadened to include a wide range of career models—such as assurance services, government, information technology, personal financial planning and consulting.

Each competency model contains about 40 professional competencies arranged in four categories: personal attributes, leadership qualities, broad business perspective and functional expertise. The first two categories—personal attributes and leadership qualities—address competencies relevant to all CPAs, regardless of discipline, which is why all CPAs would benefit from taking the self-assessment exam.

In addition to generating a custom guide for career advancement, CAT provides a log of your progress. This is especially important because many nontraditional educational programs lack a "sign-in sheet" to document continuing professional education (CPE) efforts.

Those taking the test will notice that the recommendations provided by CAT are not limited to conventional CPE programs. In fact, many of the educational activities recommended—whether they be reading books, using the Internet, attending workshops or engaging in one-on-one instruction—do not currently qualify for CPE credit even though they are designed to prepare CPAs for specific career goals. CAT represents a change in thinking with respect to the current CPE requirements.

The rules require a specified number of hours of CPE within a three-year period. For members in public practice, that requirement is 120 hours. For members not in public practice, it is currently 90 hours. The requirement for a certain number of hours may change, however, and the design of CAT is predicated on that possibility. The AICPA and National Association of State Boards of Accountancy are currently working on modifying the current continuing professional education standards, which will address the various ways in which CPAs can acquire the skills they need. (For more on this topic, see "CPE Is Broke; Let's Fix It," JofA, Dec.98.)

The program's sequence follows.
Competency model: Industry
Competency category: Leadership qualities
Competency: Decision-making
Skill (basic): Develops basic research skills.
Skill (intermediate): Analyzes complex and abstract transactions.
Skill (advanced): Builds new analytical framework/approaches.
(See the sidebar "Glossary of Terms," below, for a definition of the terms used in the model.)

CAT provides a five-step process to guide you through the model. Initially you will be asked a series of questions to ensure that the appropriate information flows to your assessment. One question, for example, is, What position are you assessing against? Your response would be either your current job title or the job you want. You also have an option to choose a default profile, which requires an answer to the question, In order for me to be successful as a (insert job title), what proficiency level for each relevant competency would I need? The information included in the default profile listing would contain such information as the position title, company revenue range, number of employees at the company and company type.

Glossary of CAT Terms

Advanced. The level at which someone with mastery should be performing. This could be the highest ranking finance officer in the organization. It also may describe any professional with specialized knowledge.

Basic. The level at which someone new to a skill can be expected to perform.

Broad business perspective. The body of knowledge that encompasses an understanding of an organization, its industry and management accounting practices.

Competencies. Knowledge, skills and abilities required to perform a job effectively.

Competency categories. The four subject areas that support New Finance concepts and competencies: personal attributes, leadership qualities, broad business perspective and functional expertise.

Competency model. A collection of competencies CPAs need for a particular position or job.

Default profiles. See position profiles.

Functional expertise. The traditional technical skills CPAs possess that form the basis for their professional role.

Intermediate. Describes the level at which someone who has detailed knowledge of, and is capable of, taking operational responsibility for an area should be performing. This person often is at a middle level within the organization and has supervisory responsibilities.

Leadership qualities. The skills that allow the CPA to assume a position of influence by assembling and leveraging a variety of resources.

Learning activities. The continuing education opportunities that help CPAs increase their proficiency level in a relevant competency.

Learning log. A summary that tracks and documents the successful completion of learning activities and movement through the CPA's learning plan.

Learning plan. A series of activities that a CPA might engage in over time to develop identified competencies.

Model. A focused collection of competencies and skills relevant for a specific discipline. There are various models embedded in the CAT.

The New Finance. A movement that describes the changing, expanding role of CPAs in business and industry.

Personal attributes. Characteristics that enable the finance professionals to attract others to their well-reasoned and logical points of view.

Position profiles. CPAs may not know what their proficiency level should be when they are assessing themselves against a position that they don't yet occupy. The default position profiles in each model provide this information.

Proficiency levels. The levels in CAT's learning continuum: beginner, intermediate and advanced.

Skills. The specific abilities that relate to a competency.

In step 1, Assessment, you review each competency and the related skills and determine the proficiency level—from basic to advanced—that best matches your skill level. Then you indicate the proficiency level prescribed by CAT for the position you are assessing against. If you have chosen a default profile, you don't need to fill in the desired level as that will be completed for you.

In step 2, Gap Analysis, you review step 1 results, checking your strengths and weaknesses for each competency. You then select the competencies you would like to work on.

Step 3, Learning Plan, provides a list of activities designed to help you increase your proficiency in the competencies chosen in step 2. The activities include both traditional and nontraditional selections. As other options for learning activities are created, they will be added to the list.

Step 4, Reports, provides a summary of your assessment and learning activity choices.

Step 5, Learning Log, documents the results of learning and competency development. Once you participate in a learning activity, that information is included in this log. This is especially important for nontraditional learning activities where no sign-in sheet is provided.

If you have questions about CAT, e-mail them to

CAT can be vitally important to your career. It not only will help you focus on your goals, it will prepare you for the changes that continue to have impact on the profession. So reserve time to take the test. This is not a task that can be put off till tomorrow.


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