Change One Thing

Written by Jess Halverson Bowyer on February 7, 2019

One of the hardest things about changing learning is how BIG it all seems. You may know something needs to change, but not what. Or maybe you know what, but not how.

Let’s start by addressing why we need to change: our members. At the CPA Center of Excellence® and Indiana CPA Society, these members consist of nearly 8,000 CPAs and accounting professionals.

Learning needs to change for our members because their world is changing. Advances in technology like robotic process automation, blockchain and big data are set to revolutionize how CPAs work. Clients are changing — a small CPA firm built around local clients now has access to a global marketplace with remote work options. Hiring CPAs is increasingly competitive, and due to these changes brought on by technology and globalization, the non-technical skills like critical and strategic thinking, communication skills and an entrepreneurial mindset are crucial. These types of changes are affecting many other professions as well.

Like our members, we as associations also face an increasingly competitive marketplace. LinkedIn is expanding its online networking and resources. Learning startups like Degreed and online course providers create competition from an entirely new space. Vendors specifically targeting our different audiences, especially for licensed professions where continuing education is a requirement, have commoditized online learning. It’s time for us to quickly respond in order to remain essential to professionals. A learning portfolio of a bunch of in-person seminars and some conferences isn’t going to cut it anymore.

Luckily, we are uniquely positioned to do this. We have the connections between the educators and the members. We often can be more agile than larger organizations or government regulators. Best yet, we have access — if we want to know more about what our audience needs, we can just ask them.

The challenge is that responding to this huge amount of change is going to take a different type of thinking than to keep doing what we did well before. There are two parts to this change: a strong vision (why) and diligent implementation (how).

Our vision at the CPA Center of Excellence® and Indiana CPA Society is to change the CPA profession and pipeline to a competency-based model for learning. Currently, hours-based learning is the standard. Working towards this vision is complex — it has required lengthy strategic planning, hours and hours of advocacy work, patience, product development, organizational change and, often, trying something to see if it sticks (and finding out it doesn’t).

On good days, you get to directly see how what you are working towards will change someone’s career or business. A student tells you they got the job because of something they learned about from your program. A member excitedly shows you their firm’s new career development program for their staff and talks about how it helps their retention. You see someone light up when they “get it.” Dedicated volunteers sincerely thank you. Involved members spread the word.

On bad days, the implementation process can be frustrating. If I told you everything we’ve tried and failed at to get a third of the way to our goal, you would not want to start. But here’s the thing: with the type of change demanded by today’s changing environment to create value for our members AND to keep associations successful for the long run, not changing is not an option. So what is an overworked association professional to do?

Start with one thing. Start with one conversation. Accept the fact that you will not have all of the answers or a clear roadmap when you start. Have faith the answers will become apparent after you start working towards your goal. The most powerful thing I’ve learned from this process is the idea of incremental change. I’m a person who loves big ideas and can talk with you for hours about what the future should be or could be. I can see how the pieces could all fit together to make our vision a reality. And I’d really like that to happen… yesterday. Learning to be comfortable with changing one small thing at a time has been challenging for me accept.

Now that it has been a few years and I can see the results of our initial steps towards change, I’m enthralled with the idea implementation breakdown: what the small steps are that we can implement that will create the snowball effect. It’s only by changing many small things that we will get to large change. You’ll need to give yourself permission to start, and possibly fail a few times, and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of changing learning.

Everything is already changing in our environment, and we are situated in the most advantageous position to help our members. The competition doesn’t know them like we do.

All we have to do is start.

Jess spoke in the “Mission Critical: Advance Your Industry’s Workforce Through Real Learning” session during SURGE Optimism 2018, an interactive virtual conference hosted by on November 7th-9th. Click here to watch the sessions on demand.