Export strength learning

A massive project to compile a global learning programme for chartered accountants offers insights into worldwide learning styles

How can you establish consistent professional development when you have members working in widely different functions all over the world? On the one hand, this training must have clarity and focus, while on the other, it needs to be responsive to cultural difference, and accessible to members in remote places.

This is the challenge before the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA), which is making continual professional development (CPD) compulsory for all its 100,000 members worldwide, but similar dilemmas also confront professional associations representing doctors, lawyers and architects.

“Professional training is more and more important – organisations have to work out what the core knowledge is that they need to pass on to staff, and adapt these requirements to different countries,” says Dick Ayling, vice-president of international business development with consultancy DDI. “And this is going to become increasingly important in future, particularly with consolidation in Europe.”

With this in mind, ACCA is making CPD compulsory for all its 100,000 members, with the goal of making this new training programme relevant and accessible to a wide range of roles, and 50,000 members who live in 30 different countries outside the UK. The scheme will be introduced in 2005 – and ACCA hopes that its experience will be useful to others in a similar situation.

“We have members in a wide range of positions – such as finance, accountancy and management,” says Stephen Heathcote, head of training and development at ACCA. “Although they started from an accountancy background, many have moved into totally different sectors.”

Bringing in CPD is part of a process that began in the 1990s, when it was introduced for members working as auditors. But this is a relatively small percentage of the overall membership – just 5,000. Delivering CPD to 100,000 people, spread both in terms of function and geography, is a bigger challenge. With this in mind, Heathcote and his colleagues consulted widely before developing the programme, getting feedback from 11,000 people, as well as running workshops in each country where members are working.

“When it comes to learning styles, we need to ask some basic questions,” stresses Heathcote. “How do people learn? And what learning are they already engaged in? This research was an opportunity for us to see how workplace learning is working already. We had to reflect the way that people are currently developing to make the new scheme work effectively.”

Access issues

Another issue is that some of these far-flung members are living in inaccessible parts of the world, so the training needed to be delivered as flexibly as possible, via e-learning, chat rooms, technical material, knowledge libraries and guidance about workplace coaching.

Cultural differences and individual learning styles are important here, and the sheer volume of feedback gave ACCA an invaluable insight into how these cultural differences affect the learning experience. While Heathcote is reluctant to generalise about cultural differences when individual ways of learning can vary so much, he did find some of their discoveries useful when designing the CPD package.

“We found, for example, that people in Asia actually like courses, tests and qualifications – so we needed to cater for this,” he says. “In the UK and Eastern Europe, however, there is a strong desire for workplace learning.

“We also found that people in Asia were more likely to be expected to take on responsibility for their own learning, but this was influenced by the culture of individual companies as well. And in the Caribbean, we found a strong interest in learning about the US market, probably because of its geographical proximity.”

The preferred method of teaching may also vary across countries. In Asia, the emphasis is on job secondments and rotations, while here in the UK the trend is towards external training courses. In Eastern Europe, on the other hand, the preference is for hands-on experience and informal coaching.

One preference that cuts across cultural difference is that people value face-to-face interaction, whatever other learning styles they choose. And some countries are more likely to provide that via the employer than others. “We needed to provide training packs that would provide learning opportunities in either case, whether the employer was prepared to give face-to-face feedback, or the individual was expected to take on this responsibility themselves,” says Heathcote.

Local flexibility

Overall, the message was that the CPD package needed to be as flexible as possible, and as receptive as it could be to what people were already doing. “As well as having learning programmes delivered over the internet, we will also have locally delivered learning, and members will be able to use the system to see if it’s available,” says Heathcote.

“We have around 70 ACCA offices all over the world, which will give support to members, and provide events and seminars, and will be aware of what issues are specific to local markets. We will also be asking our members what they are learning through local networks, and what they are doing can be fed back into our training package.”

The general issue of learning styles has been investigated in some depth by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA), which has just published a new report, Should we be using Learning Styles? What Research has to say to Practice. It is the outcome of 16 months’ work by a team of researchers, led by Frank Coffield, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, London University. The research team examined theories on learning styles, and scrutinised some of the leading products in the field.

It concluded that glib assumptions about learning styles should be avoided, and that many of the most common instruments used for learning had “low reliability, poor validity, and a negligible impact on teaching and learning”. Overall, the researchers found “a bedlam of contradictory claims”. This further endorses ACCA’s independent research, and its emphasis on discovering what its members were already finding effective in terms of their learning.

Dick Ayling of DDI agrees that a responsive approach like that of ACCA can pay dividends.

“One of the stumbling blocks to effective learning across international boundaries can be making the assumption that e-learning is the answer for everyone,” he says.

“It is easy to absorb information from an e-learning platform, but in the Latin countries – Italy, Germany, south of France, Spain, there is a preference for personal interaction, and people are slightly less willing to learn from a computer. There should always be the flexibility for people to choose.”

One of the dangers when implementing cross-cultural learning is to assume that your own national preferences are the ‘norm’, according to Andrew Constable, director of consultancy and bespoke services at Roffey Park.

“In the UK, our learning style tends to be pragmatic: we are less interested in the theoretical side, and more interested in how things work in practice,” he says. “We can be too reliant on the Anglo Saxon/US models – and we should certainly be sensitive to other models.”

Stumbling block

Constable believes ACCA’s research should help it avoid this stumbling block. “Pluralism is of huge importance – it’s hard to emphasise this sufficiently. For instance, the status of teachers and teaching materials can also vary enormously. In south Asian countries like India and Pakistan, teachers are held in very high esteem, and there is a much more formal relationship between tutors and participants than you would find here.

“I would say that the research ACCA has done sounds very positive – it starts the whole process off in a very helpful way. It means that they are conveying the message right at the start, and that they are valuing cultural difference.”

But to build on this positive beginning, ACCA needs to continue to spell out clearly how the training will work, points out Bill Shedden, director of Cranfield’s centre for customised executive development.

“You do need to be clear about what the process is going to involve, so that your audience is not disappointed,” he says. “Last week, we were working in the Middle East, a culture where the expectation is that there will be an expert, who tells you things. But our style is a mixture, and uses discussion as well as formal teaching. The course participants found this exciting – but they didn’t expect it. The more time you spend preparing the ground, the better.”

Whatever the teething problems, pundits agree that getting this right will benefit the accountancy profession. “This scheme will have far-reaching implications for the future cadre of accounting professionals,” says Tony Montes, director of the leading diverse organisations programme at Ashridge Management School. “The supply and demand for professionals will become more internationally diverse as various parts of the world become more borderless – as is the case in Europe – and new and large economies such as China and India play a bigger part in the world capital flow.”

Montes also points out that more joined-up accountancy is also of greater importance, following the sharper teeth given to accountants and auditors under the Sarbanes Oxley Act, brought in following the Enron scandal in the US. “These are issues that will persist,” he says.

International CPD – top tips

  • now your audience as well as possible before starting out
  • Plan ways in which your service can be integrated with other approaches
  • Anticipate the need for this training to be customised, and build this into your financial planning
  • Ensure that, with flexibility, standards are maintained
  • Demystify CPDs as measures of how competent people are in their profession
  • Plan your cash flow in detail

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