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Understanding the Domains of Accountant Professional Development

As I gained exposure to the variety of training available to accountants, I started to become confused and wasn’t sure how to differentiate between the multitude of events.  In-firm training, state society training, national conferences, vendor training, vendor conferences, industry conferences, and a variety of workshops and “academies”, the categories alone are overwhelming.

Reflecting on my professional development path

Being an “IT specialist”, I naturally gravitated toward the events that helped develop my knowledge and skills in my area of specialization. I stayed away from the Microsoft and other vendor-specific training because I didn’t want to be a “techie”, so I focused on those trainings that helped me to better bridge accounting and IT.  Well there wasn’t that much that was relevant, so I quickly ran out of interesting courses to take that were more balanced and not overly deep on the techie end.

So I turned to a different way of learning, I volunteered for the AICPA’s Information Technology Executive Committee.  Through this committee and its task forces, I began learning in a different way.  I was able to participate in very high level (national/executive) and very technical discussions about professional practices (standards and methodology).  Wow, I hadn’t realized that people even met about this stuff.  As a student and as an entry level CPA, this was the stuff of books and reference manuals that we learned about.  But I guess, yeah, someone had to think about this and write those documents.

My first major assignment here was to help write a discussion paper on the IT considerations of the new (in 2006) Risk Based Auditing standards.  And then I learned a LOT.  I hadn’t done IT audit in maybe eight years, and here I was sitting with Dan Schroeder, Catheryn Bruder, and Mark Mayberry writing a paper that would be helping other CPAs around the nation understand how to apply some of the next standards.  I was definitely intimidated, but I listened intently and quickly got back up to speed on IT audit and how these three IT audit partners and their firms approached it.  So while not officially “training”, I learned a whole lot and began to establish myself as an expert in this area.

Then in 2009 I was selected to attend the AICPA’s Leadership Academy.  This opened my eyes up to “the profession” and a whole new area of the profession, which I later learned was called “practice management”.  Practice management was essentially the way a CPA firm was run—the “operations” part or managing a professional practice.

As the lead executive of my firm for the last 14 years, I’ve struggled with how to help staff choose the right type of training and training events to attend.  And then how to also tie the training into the staff’s professional development plans.  I struggled to explain to staff why certain topics were helpful, especially when they weren’t directly related to the work that we were doing.

Introducing the Knowledge Domain Map for Accounting Professionals

Just recently I came up with a framework for how to better categorize training opportunities and the potential value they provide to the attendee. I call it the Knowledge Domain Map for Accounting Professionals.

Knowledge Domain Map for Accounting Professionals

Knowledge Domain Map for Accounting Professionals

I started off by identifying the three major domains of knowledge usually required as a base for the accounting organization.  (Note if you’re an accountant in industry, replace “firm” with “department” and most of the concepts except for those related to sales should apply.)

  • Functional – “How we complete our tasks”. Most of the training in this domain will usually be execution and task focused, and they essentially teach people how to “do”.  This is where a lot of “how to” training fits, like how to use Excel, how to audit cash, or how to prepare a tax return.  A lot of vendor training normally fits here as well.
  • Methodology – “How we approach our projects and services”. Most of the training in this domain will usually be around the planning of what is being done and how different parts of a project or program work together to produce the desired result or outcome.  “Audit apporach”, tax planning, and topics like zero-based budgeting fall in this domain.
  • Practice Management – “How we manage ourselves and the firm”. Most of the training in this domain will address how the accounting organization is organized, managed, and administered. Partner compensation, staff performance management, and sales and marketing are examples of topics in this domain.

A majority of the university courses that are part of accounting degree programs probably fall into the functional domain, and they serve as the basis for our entry into the profession.

Hybrid domains

Each of the domains also has some overlap with the others.  And it was these overlaps that helped me to better identify how various trainings would provide value.

  1. Functional + Methodology = Service Delivery & Execution. The initial training I received when I started at Coopers & Lybrand LLP (C&L) is an example of this type of training.  In the training program, we learned about the C&L audit approach (Methodology) and how to use the audit tools (Functional).  In the courses that I teach about technology adoption, I often recommend using the vendor’s training (Functional) supplemented with training that addresses: “how we use this tool at our firm” (Methodology).  I believe that staff need both of these to fully adopt and use a tool or technique that is provided to them.
  2. Methodology + Practice Management = Service Lines and Firm Programs. When a firm decides it will offer a new service (e.g. benchmarking) or implement a new program (e.g. mentoring), it must first determine what it takes to deliver the service, and also how it plans to deliver the service.  With these two pieces of information the firm can determine whether how much resources will be needed to launch and sustain the service.  If in public practice, the firm would also need to determine how much it plans to charge for the new services.  So training in this area will address how to design a service offering, the elements needed to provide the service considering different options, and how to manage the cost and determine price (if applicable) of the services.
  3. Practice Management + Functional = Internal Operations. The basic operational tasks of the firm are covered in this area.  Simple things like timesheets: how to track your time, when timesheets are due, and how timesheet data is fed into payroll, are very functional in nature, but also are often driven by the policies and procedures associated with management of the firm.

These hybrid domains are often the most visible because they tie more easily to the work that is actually done by people.

Supplemental domains

But even these six domains still didn’t cover all of the types of training that I was seeing in the market, so I added three supplemental domains:

  1. Technical / Industry: Technical specializations like fraud, forensics, IT, personal tax planning, each have their own subject matter in Functional, Methodology, and Service Delivery & Execution. The same is true for Industry specialization where the nuances and specialized subject matter of an Industry need to also be considered when performing standard services.
  2. Firm Strategy and Service Quality: The reason why a firm may choose to offer a new service or implement a particular program is usually tied to some aspect of the firm’s strategy. Or a firm may decide to change its Methodology, or the way it is managing an aspect of its practice (Practice Management), as a part of its strategy.  There is strategic planning training that help firm executives set and monitor their strategy.  On the tail end of the Service Lines and Firm Programs is monitoring their quality and contributions to the realization of the firm’s strategy.  Peer review training is a good example of a service quality training.
  3. Performance Management: Performance management looks at how well the firm is doing all that it is doing. Training here parallels general business performance management and can address multiple areas including Balanced Scorecard (Customer, Financial, Learning, and Process) and other approaches.

Now with these nine domain, I believe we can cover all of the variations in training opportunities that we normally see within the accounting profession.  In the next blog post, I’ll explain how I the domains can be used to better manage professional and practice development plans.


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