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Acing the shift to virtual CPD delivery

25 August 2020: When lockdown was instigated in March, local ICAEW groups and societies across the country had CPD calendars crammed with physical training courses. The lockdown brought with it an opportunity for all these programmes to be converted to fully virtual offerings, a move which has been positively received by ICAEW’s members.

One such local group who embraced the change is Beds, Bucks & Herts district society. Chair Andrew Mead outlines how it managed the successful shift to digital.

Working from home is one thing; delivering technical training to chartered accountants in their homes is quite another. For Beds, Bucks and Herts (BBH) members, the challenge was to make it look simple while a lot was going on behind the scenes.

Andrew Mead, Principal at AndMe Consulting and ICAEW Council member, is also the Chair of BBH’s Conference Committee. The Society has a long history of delivering technical CPD courses to its membership. The programme is planned and directed by the 10-strong volunteer committee with a wealth of experience. That experience would prove to be essential as 2020 unfolded.

“Tax, accounting, practice management are all on the agenda,” he says. “Traditionally we organise 25-30 half-day CPD courses and one or two full-day conferences each year.” 

Mead has a big firm audit background with KPMG, where he not only provided client service but also organised a programme of regional client briefing events. He has also delivered technical training for various organisations including the ICAEW Academy and the Faculty Roadshows. In short, he knows how to deliver technical material in the way members need to receive it.

If 2020 had not been an extraordinary year, BBH would have continued to deliver the annual CPD programme which was all running smoothly until the UK hit the lockdown wall in mid-March.

“We had three courses in late February 2020 and early March – numbers were up 25%,” says Mead. When lockdown was announced, the first thing BBH did was approach the venues hosting its events and, thanks to firm existing relationships, the cancellation fees were waived. The first two events had to be cancelled because there was no mechanism for accommodating them online within one week.

The complex conversation of how, having never run any event online before, BBH should make the shift to digital delivery then began. Mead worked with Kim Shield, the ICAEW Regional Executive together with the BBH team of Elizabeth Williams and Kate Binks.

“We did a review of the video conferencing market and pricing. We contacted all our speakers. We told them we were thinking of delivering all our courses online. They all agreed. Then we had to work out how. Some speakers, like John Selwood and Rebecca Benneyworth, were able to give us advice because they had already been delivering courses online,” he says.

“Within about three days we’d done our market assessment and we came to the conclusion that Zoom was probably the most functional of the systems. Cost was not the biggest issue – it was user feedback and functionality,” Mead points out.

So, Zoom clinched it, the licence was bought and then came a mass communication campaign. “We tried to keep it as simple as possible,” says Andrew. “We didn’t change anything other than moving from physical to virtual.”

Test sessions were held, lessons were learned, communications were written, virtual logistics were organised, Online tool Survey Monkey was deployed for feedback forms and practice sessions with speakers were set up.

Elizabeth Williams is BBH’s meet-and-greet person and she retained her key role in welcoming delegates to the Zoom webinar in the same way she would at a check-in desk. Conference chairs and speakers performed their functions as they would have physically. Everything was as close as possible to the traditional event.

Mead points out that, although refunds were offered, the volume of delegates who cancelled or deferred was very small: one or two people per session. “Most people gave it a go,” he comments.

One lesson learned was that some speakers needed some light support with simple things like how to manage questions and Zoom functionality. The sessions were the same length of time, with the same speakers, delivering the same information. “If you are a good speaker, you are a good speaker regardless of the delivery,” says Mead. Perhaps the biggest change was a rethink of the breaks during sessions – there just needed to be more of them.

Polls, however, were a blessing. BBH asked speakers to use at least one poll every hour, just to ensure some interaction, not necessarily to receive actual answers to questions. These kept everyone in the virtual room engaged.

So, what is the plan going forward? Is this a new dawn for event delivery or just a hiatus in proceedings? Mead responds that BBH has surveyed its audience using a long list of 15 questions to help inform BBH’s planning for next year.

“What we learned was that two 3.5-hour sessions in one day when delivered virtually is too much for some people, whereas it was not too much when the sessions were physical,” he says. “There was also a preference for virtual training in the morning rather than the afternoon – people prefer to do their training at the beginning of the day.”

What was also clear is that people are missing physical contact: building their networks in a real environment and generally getting together. “People attend five or six events each year on average and the social aspect is important,” he points out.

“The decision we have taken is to push our autumn programme online because of the current government guidance. We already had our 2021 programme in place, but we have decided to deliver 75% of it physically and the rest virtually.” Physical training will continue to be two sessions a day and virtual training will be morning sessions only – picking up on those learning points.

Come the Autumn, the plan is that the 2021 programme for BBH will be launched as normal with the certain knowledge that, come what may, BBH will be able to deliver their CPD one way or another.