The conversation about learning for professionals seems to be “picking up steam.” It’s almost like it’s very fashionable to talk about a variety of approaches to learning. We first started talking publicly about these concepts relative to the CPA profession with the release of The Future of Competency White Paper in November 2012. The AICPA launched The Future of Learning website in 2014. The Ohio Society of CPAs and Maryland Association of CPAs successfully worked with regulators to permit “nano-learning” for licensees in their respective states. In the May/June 2015 issue of Current Accounts (Georgia Society of CPAs), the CEO message notes “these innovations are forcing change in the continuing education marketplace” (technology, distance learning and flipped learning) and the Oklahoma Society of CPAs May/June 2015 CPAFocus president’s message notes “the way we earn CPE is also changing to a competency based system.”

learningThe May 20, 2015, issue of Accounting Today includes a headline NASBA and AICPA Propose New Learning Methods for CPE. I commend these leaders in accounting standards for facilitating the beginning of change in CPE. But it is in fact a modest start. Adding “blended learning” and “nano-learning” to approved methodologies to earn CPE credit simply expands a system that is need of transformation. When one seriously considers these changes, they really are not meaningful. Yes, that is a bit harsh.

Why aren’t they meaningful? Well, because these changes focus on the SYSTEM of CPE. It’s understandable that a group will try to tweak the system rather than start from scratch. But the problem with CPE is the system. We are too focused on the system. If we intend to achieve meaningful change we need to transform the system to focus on the learner.

If we focus on the learner, it is necessary to rely on the individual integrity of CPA professionals. When you think about it, that is generally what the current system does. But, the current system is arbitrary. The current system – generally speaking – doesn’t consider things like years of experience, practice area (i.e. audit vs tax), specialized industry (i.e. health care vs. manufacturing) or personal learning preferences.

It is likely impossible to define what competencies need to be acquired for 400,000+ individual CPAs in the U.S. As the world becomes more complex, and as a result, increasingly specialized and diverse, it will be even more difficult to set standards that are focused on a system. It’s not like someone is writing a standard for auditing an auto dealership.  CPA professionals have vastly different competency development needs.

CPE in its current form is all about CPA license renewal (except in Wisconsin where CPE is not mandatory for renewal). Most accountancy statutes require CPAs to take courses to develop their competency. But this almost ancient system based on hours can get in the way of that. What if the system left it up to the integrity of an individual CPA to identify specific targets for competency development and state boards of accountancy renewed a license based on achievement of that target? Oh, I know, someone will take advantage of the system. Well, don’t look now, but some licensees are doing that within the current system. It’s true. But let’s transform the process as well as the system so that those CPAs who are truly serious about competency development can achieve their goals without worrying about compliance with a system that is as modern as a transistor radio.

So yes … it matters.