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Accountancy: the great shift to lifelong learning

27 August: Coronavirus has forced a sea change in accountants’ professional learning and development, with technology playing a pivotal role. But has the pandemic driven change in and of itself, or just fast-tracked existing developments? ICAEW Insights' online editor Tom Herbert investigates.

A world-renowned economist prepares to give a talk on the latest developments in global trade. She checks her notes for a final time, has a quick sip of water, then strides onstage. In front of her, in a vast, ornate lecture theatre are the faces of some 50,000 attendees from more than 80 different countries. 

The talk is part of a global accountancy conference where hundreds of thousands of accountants have paid a relatively modest sum to hear from leading authorities, top-up their CPD, mingle with fellow delegates and catch up on the latest tech trends.

But none of it is real. The lecturers, conference staff, vendors and attendees are all in a virtual setting generated by a piece of software, with the majority tuning in with VR headsets to fully immerse themselves. The economist is actually sat in her back bedroom in Durham, while others log in from their homes or offices across the globe.

This fictional example is one potential future reality, where technology makes professional learning and development more accessible, affordable and international, with online platforms making it easier to respond quickly and plug knowledge gaps against a constantly evolving economic, political and technological backdrop.

Such an event any time soon may seem ambitious, but virtual reality (VR) firms are already scrambling to fill the gap left by the cancellation of ‘in real life’ gatherings, with companies such as Box Bear offering virtual meetings and events from anywhere in the world. 

Despite such promising offerings, ‘pure’ VR conferences are still some way from the mass market. With business travel remaining restricted, the need for CPD remains acute, so what has arrived in the meantime to fill the void? 

Conferences go virtual

Virtual conferences have seen exponential growth since the lockdown with increasing levels of interactivity, if not quite providing the full immersive experience of VR. A recent case in point was the ICAEW’s Virtually Live conference, where over three days more than 3,000 chartered accountants from across the globe convened virtually to interact with government ministers, business leaders and subject matter experts. 

“The level of engagement and participation by ICAEW members was truly remarkable: when deployed properly, platforms such as Zoom can get pretty close to the face-to-face experience”, says Amanda Digne-Malcolm, ICAEW’s Director for Practice. “And the conclusive feedback from delegates was a strong preference to continue participating in virtual conferences in the future, notwithstanding COVID. The change to the virtual format is here to stay”.

COVID and the ‘Zoom effect’

“We’ve seen a huge acceleration in organisations moving online for their training,” says Lizzie Crowley, Senior Policy Adviser for HR and people development body CIPD. “And this change will be permanent. We were already seeing a significant shift towards online learning but during lockdown, we’ve seen it accelerate as the slow adopters have been forced to catch up.” 

While coronavirus has accelerated any number of existing training trends, it has turbo-charged one particular phenomenon: the virtual classroom.

When people think about digital training, they think about self-directed learning online or recorded webinars. These are individual, often lonely pursuits: interacting with a PDF or webpage or listening to someone presenting via a webinar connection. Interactivity has traditionally been reserved for in-person seminars or breakout sessions.

However, the lack of such face-to-face events during the pandemic has forced trainers and delegates to seek other platforms for interactive learning, and when examining this trend for key drivers, you can’t look much further than Zoom. The online meeting tool saw its number of daily meeting participants booming from approximately 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020.

This ‘Zoom effect’ drove an almost overnight cultural change, where those who once shunned online courses were suddenly forced to enter virtual classroom environments via video conferencing – and have largely enjoyed it.

“I can’t overemphasise how much COVID and the subsequent boom in Zoom usage has changed this,” says Jonathan Levy, ICAEW’s Director of Product Development. “People are now learning how things are done in a digital classroom environment – as we’re doing at ICAEW. You can have presentations, but also more interactive learning: classrooms, breakout sessions, Q&As and so on. It’s a game-changer.”

According to Samantha Brown, ICAEW’s Head of Member Programme Management, the Institute has seen a huge take-up of new video-based classroom offerings. “We are getting feedback from many members that they prefer it. Virtual gives access to top trainers and allows for more flexibility, as sessions are shorter running over multiple days. It has allowed us to use international trainers who are subject matter experts.”

Skills to pay the bills

‘Train your way out of recession’, or so the old business mantra goes. However, organisations looking to do this are now confronted by a range of new challenges to manage – and not just related to COVID-19. 

Due to the breakneck pace of technological innovation and the change this drives, the lifespan of a professional skill is shrinking. In 2018, research by the World Economic Forum suggested that the half-life of a professional skill is just five years. The research also predicted that in the next five years, more than a third of the skills needed to be successful in the workplace — regardless of industry — will have changed.

“CPD is an ongoing learning journey, not a one-off,” says ICAEW’s Jonathan Levy. “In the past, for accountants and other professionals CPD was primarily about refreshing existing knowledge or skills. Now it’s increasingly focussed on acquiring a new set of capabilities”.

Many training organisations, including ICAEW, take the view that a lot of the traditional finance function skills are process-driven, and many will eventually be transformed by the tide of automation. To move up the value chain, accountants will need to consider a wider range of skills, from adjacent proficiencies such as data analytics to so-called ‘soft’ skills such as communication, problem-solving and team working.

“Organisations are placing more importance on broader, transferrable skillsets,” says CIPD’s Lizzie Crowley. “They need to ensure they’re building in those skills: how jobs and learning materials are designed, and the support and training line managers receive”.

Crowley adds that this could be easier said than done. Digital learning is often good for specific technical or compliance-related training, but softer skills are more difficult to develop remotely. They often need to be taught in an engaging, interactive way using tools like augmented or virtual reality which often require considerable investment – something smaller firms may not see as a viable solution.

Personalisation and ‘microlearning’

While the accountancy world adapts to a post-COVID training landscape, another, more subtle, trend has been incubating that could prove useful in tackling the shifting sands of professional skills. ICAEW’s Samantha Brown highlights a shift to more personalised ‘microlearning’ [short, bite-sized modules on specific topics that can be consumed at the trainee’s own pace]. 

“We are seeing delegates wanting short, personalised content to meet their own needs,” says Brown. “They also want it available quickly, as they don’t want to have to wait months for a training date to come up, which is part of the beauty of having online solutions.”

For those with an organisation or professional body dedicated to their training, the future looks bright, but the exponential rise in the amount of content fuelled by better access to technology also has the potential to add confusion. “There is so much content out there,” says Crowley. “How do you choose as an individual or a business? How do you ensure what they’re learning is quality?”

“We can’t take our eye off the ball about what makes learning effective,” concludes Crowley. “Online is not a panacea for everything. We need to be combining digital learning with what works in a traditional context: things like peer-to-peer engagement, teacher feedback, personalisation to the individual. These are all part of the feedback loop and address skills that are actually needed.”

All of ICAEW Academy's learning and development is accessible virtually. Find out more at icaew.com/academy.