How to run your training like a business.
By Michael Ramos and Cate Miller
With CPA firms spending 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent of revenue on learning, budgets can be hundreds of thousands of dollars even for a modest-sized firm. But firms invest in learning because it is a critical component in addressing many of the top issues facing CPA firms today.
Part 1 in a 3-Part Series: Run Training Like a Business
The best organizations view learning as an investment, and they manage their investment the same way a venture capitalist manages a portfolio company – like a business. Unfortunately, many CPA firms have a less disciplined approach to learning, which means they’re probably leaving money on the table.
Take Action: If the firm thinks of learning as “support function,” shift away from that mindset.
Some of a firm’s most pressing needs can be addressed through learning. To manage learning like a business, the best firms build a learning group that provides a turnkey solution to the firm’s professional development needs. The learning function should be much more than scheduling courses and tracking CPE.
The learning function must be responsible and held accountable for other matters, including:
• Aligning the learning strategy to address organizational issues
• Defining user needs and planning curriculum
• Developing new learning services and delivery methods
• Training in-firm trainers
• Measuring and evaluating learning effectiveness
A robust learning function is complex and it touches many aspects of the organization. Because of these complexities, firm leaders should make conscious decisions about how the function is organized and how it integrates with the rest of the firm. At most firms, the business model for the learning function evolves haphazardly based on the individual responsible for the learning function, budget fluctuations, or mergers and acquisitions.
Take Action: Firm leaders should periodically challenge the status quo and discuss whether the current business model for the learning function is delivering full value given the size of the learning investment. If the current model is not working as it should, then commit to change.
Choose the Right Business Model
Many business models can be successful. The key is to carefully construct a learning business model that:
• Reflects firm culture
• Delivers value to firm over the long term
• Aligns with the firm strategy
When developing the business model, firm leaders will want to make critical decisions about:
• Centralized vs. Decentralized Decision-Making. Firms should decide which training decisions will be made at an organizational level and which ones will be distributed to individual business units (e.g., service lines, industry groups or offices). Keep in mind that the question is not “either/or.” Centralization and decentralization are two ends of a continuum, and the question firms face is where on that continuum they will place their learning function.
• Oversight and Integration. The learning function should be integrated into the firm in a way that is consistent with how partners view the strategic value of learning.
• If learning is viewed as part of a comprehensive, integrated talent management and development strategy, then the function should be part of HR with a dotted-line relationship to a technical partner or partner group.
• If learning is viewed as a critical element of driving performance, then oversight of the function should be provided by a partner or a single group of partners with a relationship to HR.
Traditionally, a combination of a HR-focused and business unit-focused models works best. But keep in mind that hybrid organizational models with dotted-line relationships are complicated. Care must be taken to ensure that lines of decision-making authority are clearly drawn and communicated.
• Firmwide Funding vs. Cost Recovery/Allocation. Firms measure P&L at the business unit level. Leaders of individual business units manage and are held accountable for their P&L. Therefore, firms must decide whether and how to allocate training expenditures.
• Firmwide Model: Costs are reported at the firm level only. Business units are not billed for usage.
• Cost Recovery/Allocation: All training costs are allocated to business units based on participation and overall cost of course design.
Firms commonly use a hybrid model that includes elements of firmwide funding and allocation to individual business units.
Take Action: Assess your current business model and whether it is the right fit for your firm now and as the firm continues to grow. If it is not a good fit, commit to shifting to that model over time as part of the firm’s strategic plan.
Require an Annual Learning Plan
Those responsible for the learning function should prepare a business plan.
• Forces the firm to align the learning strategy with the firm’s annual goals and make decisions about key elements of the firm’s short- and long-term learning strategy
• Facilitates the communication of learning strategy to firm leaders and across the entire organization
• Provides a basis for accountability
The annual plan does not have to be lengthy or overly detailed but it should be thoughtful and comprehensive and include matters such as:
• Trends of key learning analytics
• Program impact on job performance
• Industry benchmarks
• New programs and services
• Schedule of courses to be offered by user group
• Annual, quarterly and monthly budget forecasts
• Learning department goals and KPIs
• Course development plans
• Other investments in learning infrastructure or technology
Take Action: Decide how firm leaders will oversee the learning function and what is required of an annual learning plan. Assign responsibility for creating and updating the plan and communicate it to all affected.
The Discipline of Professional Development
CPAs know business, and they have firsthand experience observing best practices of business management. To realize full benefits of their investment in their people, CPA firms should take what they know about managing a business and apply those principles to the firm’s learning function.
A good starting point would be to carefully define the business model for the learning function and develop an annual plan and budget. Creating those expectations and driving that discipline is not difficult, and if done well, will yield improved results.
Michael Ramos is the principal of Michael Ramos and Associates, a learning consultancy firm that works with CPA firms and organizations that provide products and services to the profession to help them develop and deploy high-impact learning programs. He has over 25 years of experience developing and delivering competency-based professional development programs and is the author of numerous auditing books and guides. He also served as the Director of CPE and Training at the AICPA.
Cate Miller, CPLP, PHR is the Director of Learning & Development at Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP, a position she has held for over six years. In that role she has oversight of the firm’s learning function and is charged with aligning the firm’s learning programs to organizational goals and objectives. She has over 20 years of learning and talent development experience and holds an MBA from Roosevelt University.