Why Now Is the Right Time to Step Up Accounting Professional Development

By Robert Half on October 1, 2020 at 4:30pm

A period of unprecedented business disruption might not seem like the best time to focus on accounting professional development. But in truth, this is an ideal moment to invest in growing the skills and knowledge of your accounting and finance team members. It can help employees feel more valued, and empowered, in an uncertain time. And by providing meaningful training and development opportunities to your staff now, you can position your business for future success and enhanced retention.

“The COVID-19 crisis has caused many companies to completely rethink their business models and, as a result, redesign jobs and teams,” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half. “And continued disruption, including from technological change, may keep them on that path for a while. So, businesses face the dual challenge of helping their employees adapt to the new normal, while also preparing them for the rapidly advancing future of work.”

The pandemic has been a wake-up call for many companies to act swiftly to “craft a talent strategy that develops employees’ critical digital and cognitive capabilities, their social and emotional skills, and their adaptability and resilience,” according to McKinsey. And, that strategy should include reskilling and upskilling. Here’s why:

Reskilling

Through reskilling, employees learn new skills, often so they can move into an entirely different role in the organization. For example, a company implementing robotic process automation (RPA) may need to reskill accounting and finance workers whose data entry-oriented job functions have been automated. These employees might be trained to focus instead on big data analysis or to work with artificial intelligence (AI) tools for detecting fraud or assessing risks.

Think of reskilling as a process of repositioning a valued team member. By providing meaningful training and development, you are helping that employee to learn an entirely new skill set to the benefit of their career — and your business. You can also invite talented employees with limited growth opportunities in their current positions to consider reskilling.

Upskilling

Upskilling involves enhancing and expanding an employee’s existing skill set to enable that person to be an even more productive contributor to the organization. Upskilling is a longer-term play compared to reskilling because it involves continuous learning and helping a staff member to continue growing and advancing along their current career path.

When workers upskill, they are learning new abilities and competencies as their job requirements continue to evolve due to technological advancements and other dynamics. And, as the shelf-life of digital skills only becomes shorter, upskilling is becoming more essential for future-proofing employees’ careers and helping the business build a workforce that will help it thrive in the future, too.

Accounting professional development to drive competitive advantage

Before the pandemic, many finance leaders were already acknowledging the need to accelerate their investment in accounting professional development. The widening embrace of automation and cloud computing, as well as advanced technologies like AI and machine learning, have been rapidly changing the nature of work in accounting and finance functions in companies across industries, and driving demand for new skills.

In many organizations, there has been a particular focus on equipping accounting and finance teams with leading-edge analytics tools. Forty-two percent of accounting and finance managers surveyed for Robert Half’s Jobs and AI Anxiety report said their functions currently use analytical tools, such as predictive analytics, and another 27% expect to use them within the next three years. And for many accounting and finance roles, these skills are becoming must-haves.

A report from IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants), The Impact of Big Data on Finance Now and in the Future, also notes that while many companies want to use big data more effectively to gain an edge in the marketplace, those businesses cannot become truly data-driven organizations if they don’t have strategies “to ensure everyone is trained on the technology, uses it appropriately, understands and reports results based on it, and, most importantly, executives and employees are committed to act on insights uncovered based on the data.”

“You can give your teams as many tools as you like, but they need to know how to use them effectively,” says Jeff Thomson, CMA, CSCA, CAE, IMA president and CEO. “Organizations that invest in technological capabilities and people can extract greater value from their data. They can also gain that ‘edge’ they seek by creating a future-ready accounting and finance function well-stocked with the competence and skills needed to derive insights from data and enable more effective business decision making.”

Accounting professional development options for a remote work world

While now is a good time to invest more in accounting professional development, your company’s budget may be limited. It’s likely you’ll also need to think about how to train staff remotely. Here are options you may want to consider:

1. Utilize existing resources and relationships

As a first step, look at what resources you currently have that you can either use as they are, or repurpose easily for remote learning. For instance, perhaps your business already uses an online platform for training, which your accounting and finance staff can access from wherever they are working.

A recent Gartner article on the topic of upskilling and reskilling suggests that employers also look into leveraging relationships with external learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Degreed or Coursera, to search for modules and learning pathways that can benefit their teams.

Also, look to industry organizations, which offer online learning opportunities like courses and webinars to members and non-members. Many of these resources are offered free or at a low cost.

2. Explore microlearning

Your accounting and finance team is very busy, and the challenges that accompany remote work can stretch them even more. Thankfully, there’s microlearning, which allows for gradual absorption of new skills and knowledge. Start with a 10-minute video tutorial on a critical feature of a new software program, for example. Then, add more experiences like this over time.

3. Mentoring

Even in a virtual world, mentoring arrangements can be highly effective for transferring knowledge and skills between more seasoned and less-experienced employees — or vice versa. And don’t think job shadowing is off the table. Videoconferencing makes it easy for a mentee to observe their mentor on the job — perhaps while conducting a meeting or working with analytics.

4. Peer-to-peer (P2P) learning

P2P learning originated in the academic world, but in recent years, has been embraced by many leading businesses as a cost-effective tool for upskilling workers. P2P learning is informal, and takes many forms, including employee-led workshops and team projects. One option: You might ask an employee to attend a webinar as part of their accounting professional development track and then, request that they present what they learned to their peers in a video conference.

5. Providing financial aid

Not all new technologies and skills can be learned in a quick session or through an online tutorial. And not all educational options are free, of course. So, if you know an accounting and finance team member will require certification or in-depth study of a new subject, consider offering tuition reimbursement or assistance. When reviewing budgets, keep in mind the return on investment your business can gain in the long run.

Emphasize the importance of growing and refining soft skills

The accounting professional development opportunities you help organize shouldn’t focus only on building technical abilities. Interpersonal skills and attributes — especially, empathy — are essential in the virtual work world, and they will be even more crucial in the future workplace. So, be sure to stress to your team members the importance of mastering abilities such as written and verbal communication, emotional intelligence, and leadership.

Reskilling and upskilling your accounting and finance staff can enhance your company’s long-term competitiveness, and boost staff retention, too. A recent Robert Half survey found that 60% of workers are more motivated to be employed at a company that values its staff during unpredictable times. Proactively encouraging your team members to engage in accounting professional development right now, and giving them the time and resources to learn, is a simple but powerful way to demonstrate that the business does value its employees, more than ever.

Looking for more professional development ideas in a remote world? Share a free, three-month trial membership with IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) with your team.

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