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Trainers adapt to new accounting CPD landscape

26 August: COVID-19 is having a profound effect on the way training and CPD is delivered to accountants. Rachel Willcox speaks to trainers from the accountancy world about the new landscape

Social distancing rules mean face-to-face training is at best impractical in the current environment. However, the need for training continues apace. It could be argued that since lockdown, the need for self-development has never been greater – whether to adapt to an increasingly digital business world, make the most of time on furlough to develop new skills, or keep abreast of topical issues to help your organisation, customers or clients weather the storm.

Lockdown has forced trainers to embrace delivery models that will have a lasting impact on the way accountants acquire new knowledge. At the same time, online models make it easier for trainers to respond quickly to plug knowledge gaps against a backdrop of constantly evolving government schemes and rules designed to help businesses weather the COVID-19 storm.

Opportunities for interaction

Vivek Mehan helped set up ICAEW Academy and delivers CPD training to around 3,000 accountants a year on subjects including business partnering, soft skills and staff wellbeing. He recently delivered a session on financial reporting as part of ICAEW’s Virtually Live conference (click here for more details) and describes initial resistance across the training industry to embracing online delivery or courses. “Now that it is clearer that we’re in this for a while longer, people are starting to come around to the different opportunities,” Mehan says. 

Giles Mooney is Managing Director of PTP Ltd, which started offering its portfolio of eight training courses across 15 UK-wide venues over Zoom in February. “Apart from the fact that courses are run online, the format is exactly the same: same people, same time, same date,” he explains. 

The need to keep sessions interactive – allowing delegates to ask questions and hone in on specific issues in the same way as in the classroom - is key to successful learning outcomes. “We use the same material at each venue, but the content will be different because the issues that crop up among participants will be different,” Mooney explains. 

For that reason, trainers agree that restricting live sessions to around 50 people ensures a good level of delegate interaction, even though the technology allows for far more. “Once you get over 100 people in a room, no-one listens,” Mooney says. 

John Tennent sits on the Institute’s Excel Advisory Committee. His company, Corporate Edge, moved all its training – including Excel business modelling and strategic management - online in March. As remote working becomes the new norm for many people, Tennent says group online learning experiences give staff the added advantage of being able to interact. “Working from home can be a terribly lonely environment,” Tennent says.

Growing familiarity of online platforms during lockdown has certainly eased the transition. In fact, trainers agree that well-delivered virtual training – with smaller groups and proper design – can be as good as, and often better, than face-to-face delivery. “If anything, we get more questions and more feedback from delegates doing courses online,” adds Mooney. However, as Mehan warns, trainers are at the mercy of delegates’ broadband connections. 

Taking a different approach 

Overall, the experience does demand a slightly different approach, Tennent admits. “You can’t gesticulate as much as you would face-to-face, and you need a more engaging routine.” As a rule of thumb, Tennant says he tries to create a “buzz activity” every five minutes – whether that’s a poll or sending delegates into breakout “rooms” to discuss issues. Tennent is also a big fan of the digital pen to write on slides. 

Rebecca Benneyworth MBE is one of the UK’s best-known small business tax trainers. “I’m quite an intuitive lecturer,” she explains, “and because I don’t have the audience in front of me, I can’t read their faces to see if they’re bored or don’t understand something. You have to work harder to get the point across. I use lots of examples to do that.”

The intense nature of online training is also driving a trend towards shorter, more modular sessions, and trainers say they are responding to calls for shorter courses at lunchtime or after work. Meanwhile demand for COVID-specific content – whether it’s dealing with the intricacies of government grants or the employment law implications of COVID-19 – is also booming, as are wellbeing courses. “With online you can be much more responsive and that’s something we’re keeping regardless,” Mooney says.

Investments in a professional studio set up - a green screen and studio lights - make a huge difference in terms of output quality. Having a technical person to deal with delegate login issues, play entry music and launch courses – is invaluable, Benneyworth says.

More blended approaches

Despite the many advantages that online training presents, course participants do miss out on the “water cooler” moments, networking opportunities and ad hoc conversations that form an invaluable benefit of a face-to-face training course. “It’s the mingling, it’s the diary management and yes, it’s the biscuits” Mooney jokes. 

The convenience of online will undoubtedly drive demand. But COVID-19 certainly doesn’t mark the end of face-to-face training. Instead, blended approaches that include face-to-face (particularly for team training), live online and recorded bite-sized refreshers will allow accountants to pick and choose to meet their specific requirements. 

Mehan anticipates the new normal will see 70% of his training being delivered online. “I don’t think it’ll ever be the same again,” he says. “People like the modular more flexible approach. It especially works well with dispersed teams,” he says. “People shouldn’t be put off because they’ve sat on loads of online webinars and think that’s all training can be.”

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