Training vs. Learning… and the Professional’s Struggle to “Comply”

Sep 2012
Issue 29

by Rod Mebane

Many professions have continuing education requirements. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, and many people in numerous other professions are subject to laws or regulations that require them to take some designated amount of continuing education over some designated period of time.

The rationale for this requirement is solid. These professionals are vested with trust that they will serve in the public interest and so need to be licensed to practice by the state or states in which they do business. In licensing such professionals, the state regulatory boards are of the mind that it is critical for such practicing individuals to stay sharp (and we in the public also want them to stay sharp). Consequently, the boards establish certain continuing educational requirements to ensure that levels of knowledge and skill are maintained and enhanced over time. Sounds great … in principle. But it’s not always so great … in practice.

What gets measured gets done

The main problem in practice is related to the oft cited concept that “what gets measured gets managed” or “what gets measured gets done.” In the world of professional continuing education, what gets measured is credits – usually one credit equals one hour of training. So if, say, a professional accountant needs to get 40 credit hours every year in order to maintain the CPA license, the accountant will take 40 hours’ worth of training, and the requirement will be satisfied. But did the accountant stay sharp? Who knows? Did the accountant learn anything of direct value to the work? Who knows? The quality and effectiveness of training is not measured. The quantity of training is.

To provide a specific example, there is in the training management parlance a measure referred to as the “butts in seat” metric. To explain, in the context of a workshop or seminar, a participant in the training event is given credit for the training as long as his/her butt is in his/her seat. It doesn’t matter if the participant is reading the Wall Street Journal or reading client email on the iPad or texting someone back at the office – as long as the butt is in the seat, the training counts toward the license requirement.

Some feel that there is nothing harmful in this situation – what difference does it make if someone snoozes through a conference presentation or multi-tasks during a webinar? Odds are that some of the good stuff is absorbed via osmosis, right? And I guess from that perspective, it is fair to say that no one is physically harmed. However, what has been created in most professions where there is a continuing education requirement is a prevailing frame of reference that emphasizes meeting the numbers, not necessarily learning what is most important to know.

A colossal waste of time

In my estimation, this creates an extremely harmful situation. In my view, the overall compliance-education-in-the-professions situation results in a colossal waste of time by the professionals involved – people who are among our best and brightest – and I do not believe that we as a public can afford to have our best and brightest wasting their time. We need them to be as sharp as possible – in mastering that newest surgical techniques or knowing how (and how not) to give ethically sound tax savings advice. We do not need them compromising their learning opportunities.

Now, to be fair, clearly lots of good learning does occur despite the credit-counting measures that dominate. And I am somewhat overstating the downside of the situation for effect. On the other hand, I know the world of continuing education for CPAs very well, and I can reliably report that, toward the end of a state reporting period, many CPAs will take lots of courses – sometimes for hours at a stretch – that have little to nothing to do with their real educational needs.

Learning professionals to the rescue

The ideal scenario, of course, is for professional practitioners to cultivate a sound learning discipline whereby: 1) they identify the areas of knowledge and skill that are most relevant to the work that they do or will do, 2) they document their learning needs (or what we refer to in the learning biz as “competency gaps”), and then 3) they deliberately develop meaningful learning plans and put those plans in play in a timely way.

These are sound learning principles, but it is not realistic to expect these behaviors of regulated professionals – creating meaningful, structured learning plans is not their forte. But it is the forte of learning professionals, and learning professionals need to step up and re-paint the world of professional training with colors that make it look more like a world of professional learning.

The Illinois CPA Society example

To provide an excellent example of the kind of approach that may be taken to help address the problems, there is a best practice emerging in the public accounting market in the form of what’s called the KnowledgeHub, sponsored by the Illinois CPA Society.

Principals at the Society – a not-for-profit organization that has high credibility in providing educational services to accounting and other finance professionals – were very sensitive to the time-burning phenomenon already mentioned. They were also mindful of the fact that many of their members do not have the time or talent to sift through all of the “noise” in the vendor-driven professional education marketplace to make sense of the continuing professional education (CPE) options that are available.


So, in collaboration with St. Charles Consulting, the Illinois CPA Society set out to create KnowledgeHub, which provides a complete online university environment that is distinctive is several significant respects. For one thing, it is a multiple-vendor environment – currently, the content libraries of four reputable providers are all available to the learner to expand the educational reach. Secondly, the content is structured on the basis of a proprietary framework that functions as a “card catalog” designed specifically for accounting and finance professionals – making it intuitive and easy to find relevant learning titles. And, third, the online university supports individual learning plans that are very easy to build and modify over time.

Simplify sound decision making processes

In selecting among continuing education options, regulated professionals – like people in general – will tend to follow the path of least resistance. Coupled with cost sensitivity and last minute decision making, the result is all too often characterized by selection decisions that meet the regulatory numbers but do not optimize learning.

Learning professionals cannot change the realities of the regulatory environment, but we can change the way training content is packaged and presented so that it facilitates decisions that lead to good learning, effective competence building, and more productive and responsible practitioners across the professions.

For more information on regulatory education requirements in general, contact Rod Mebane. For more information on the Illinois CPA Society’s KnowledgeHub, contact Jennifer Schultz.

Next month:

Corporate learning leaders are under pressure to do more with less – better, cheaper, faster. This pressure has these top learning professionals constantly looking for effective ways to leverage technology to meet these demands while also ensuring that learning gain is achieved. Webinars, webcasts, tele-training, and virtual classrooms are all viable online learning venues, but what are the differences? Why and when should you use one channel over another? Next month, we’ll demystify these distance learning platforms and help you sort through the options.