The face of accountancy is changing radically and it is vital that those in practice stay on top of the raft of new legislation and standards. Here, Peter Williams takes a look at how e-learning can help firms stay ahead of the pack.
Training and updating has always been a major headache for the accountancy business.
Working practices are constantly changing and with the mass of detail in today’s law, regulations and standards, accountants cannot possibly remember every last detail – but they may need to look them up at a moment’s notice.
One obvious way to keep finance professionals up to date is to use technology.
Over the last couple of years there has been a massive explosion of interest in, and use of, e-learning.
The accountancy profession has been a leader in the use of technology and it is no surprise that it has enthusiastically embraced e-learning. The professional bodies are starting to discover how e-learning can link geographically dispersed members and students.
Firms are looking to e-learning as a cost-effective way to keep staff up-to-date, especially those auditors who spend most of their time in client offices rather their own.
There is talk of students doing online assessment for their accountancy exams. Such a move would be a big cultural change for the professional and usher in e-learning in a big way.
Students entering the workplace are much more comfortable with technology than their bosses, and many of them expect to use technology for just about everything.
Richard Naish, FCA, is an e-learning developer. He says: ‘Accountants tend to be more interested in data than in people, so web-based e-learning presents a great opportunity quickly and easily to access the data they want and need for their work.’
Technology cannot only help people learn, it can help their organisations manage their learning. The e-learning industry has grown up through two routes – providing content electronically and building and selling IT systems that manage the learning for employees in an organisation.
These help to track not only what learning individuals have completed and need to complete but also how they have fared.
These large, enterprise-wide systems are called learning management systems, or LMS, and are used by two of the Big Four firms – Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Sarah Lindsell, head of learning solutions in the PwC learning technology group, sees the LMS as a crucial enabler.
The LMS was a global initiative for the firm. Lindsell says: ‘The LMS helps our people manage their learning and it helps monitor e-learning usage. It provides one place to access details about learning and training where before there were multiple systems.’
Lindsell says that e-learning in its present form has evolved over the years from technology such as interactive video-disks to today’s huge systems, which can come with suitably large price tags.
But e-learning is not only for the big boys. E-learning can be deployed in specific situations without the need for an enterprise-wide system.
For example, e-learning company Wide Learning recently launched two courses specifically created for accountancy firms.
One is on money laundering and the other looks at the Data Protection Act 1998. Both are designed to help accountancy firms meet their legal requirements.
Wide Learning’s director of strategy, Jan Hagen, says: ‘This is mission critical training which can be rolled out quickly across the firm. Implementation of these courses enables firms to comply cost-effectively with the requirement that they provide staff with appropriate training on each issue.’ The courses can be delivered via the internet, via the firm’s intranet, or on CD-ROM.
In the late 1990s some e-learning companies predicted that e-learning could replace all other forms of training. That view has been tempered to an extent to be replaced by the buzzword ‘blended learning’. E-learning may help in specific areas – perhaps as a good introduction prior to a residential course. The secret is to find the delivery mechanism that best meets the learning requirement.
E-learning may be fantastic in reminding an accountant how to work out an obscure capital gains tax calculation or reminding them how to improve their spreadsheet skills.
But it may not work so well for team-building exercises, although Naish claims that e-learning could help accountants to improve their soft skills.
He says: ‘I imagine accountants want to play at the knowledge management end of e-learning. They are likely to be less interested in soft-skill programmes such as coaching and management skills, despite the fact that they probably need these more.’
Whatever the training and learning needs – books, lectures, videos and face-to-face tuition still have their role.
Used wisely, e-learning has clear benefits. Clare Minchington, head of education at ACCA, says e-learning deals with some tricky issues. Minchington says: ‘Because we have a global membership base we never launch something that is inaccessible to members. Online overcomes practical difficulties such as inefficient postal and customs services.’ ACCA has three approaches to e-learning.
It has an academy hosted on a Lotus learning space with a range of continuing professional development courses.
There are also two certificates first introduced at the end of 2001.
One is on international financial reporting and international auditing.
The course takes about 20-30 hours with an online multiple choice and online access to a tutor. The other certificate – on corporate governance – is more sophisticated as the students are assigned an online mentor.
After a six-month study period a 2,500-word dissertation is submitted.
Additionally, ACCA offers an online MBA in conjunction with Oxford Brookes University – complete with a virtual campus that allows students to access virtual libraries and communicate electronically both with tutors and fellow students. Minchington does not pretend that there has been massive uptake of e-learning amongst ACCA members. She expects to see e-learning students in their hundreds rather than thousands.
A major criticism of e-learning – and one that the e-learning industry is trying to address – is that students find it a lonely or boring business and so drop out. Minchington claims that ACCA has suffered little drop out. There were 60 students in the first group studying for the certificates and only two dropped out. This is in contrast to claims some e-learning suffers attrition rates as high as 50%. Drop out may be less of a problem in the accountancy world than it is elsewhere for two reasons. First, accountants tend to be more highly educated than the population as whole and so more used to studying and less likely to bunk off any type of course.
Secondly, much of the e-learning will be related directly to their job and so there is a greater incentive to stick with it.
ACCA will soon be joined in the e-learning race by the ICAEW. From September 2003 ICAEW students will be able to access online the learning material for the professional stage of the financial accounting paper. Aude Leonetti, head of assessment at education and training, says: ‘This will give students more flexibility.
‘They will be able to study and perform study assessments in their own time.’ Leonetti describes the ICAEW approach as ‘steady as she goes’ and does not want to be seen to be jumping on the e-learning bandwagon.
She adds: ‘We want to add value. At the moment it seems the blended approach makes a lot of sense using the most appropriate media. We are actively engaged in discussions with tutor organisations.’
One advantage widely trumpeted for e-learning is that it cuts costs.
But e-learning experts in accountancy are cautious about endorsing such claims. The reaction from PwC’s Lindsell is typical. She says: ‘We are pleased about e-learning from a learning effectiveness point of view, not from a cost point of view. You may save money over three or four years but often costs are very similar.’
At the height of the dotcom boom, John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems, claimed that e-learning would make e-mail look like a rounding error. It may not fulfil that prediction but e-learning could radically alter the way accountants learn throughout their professional lives.
WHAT THE FIRMS ARE DOING…
PwC is trying to give partners and staff maximum flexibility. So the firm has what Sarah Lindsell, head of learning solutions at PwC, describes as ‘snack learning’ which are refresher types of learning which can be accessed when a professional needs to know something quickly. The firm is also using simulations. For instance brand new audit hires have a simulation training packages called Go Audit which covers some of the basics.
Lindsell says: ‘New recruits want to use this type of learning because they are so much more technology savvie.’ But getting e-learning right is not easy. Lindsell maintains that as much care and attention has to be given to e-learning as to classroom training. Not only in terms of content, but in making it easy for students to join the course. That way good take up is more likely.
The secret of e-learning as far as she is concerned is that it has to be linked to specific business needs.
She says: ‘A lot of e-learning is generic but we have tried to link it to our business and that’s what makes it have an impact.’ E&Y is also making use of a global LMS, first deployed in the last year.
Brenton Hague, a senior member of E&Y’s learning & development team, says: ‘One way that we have used e-learning is supporting our global audit methodology.’ Hague says that there have been technology problems mostly in the form of pressure on the firm’s networks. But the way the audit trainees have embraced e-learning for technical training in the first years of their careers has exceeded expectations. According to Hague, the auditors are e-learning in the office and blocking out time during the working day prior to attending courses.
E&Y is now broadening its approach. Hague says: ‘We are now regularly using virtual presentations, or web-casts, to link communications and learning. We use them to inform staff and partners about new products and service and it helps us increase our speed of delivery.’