With the rise of compliance legislation around issues such as financial reporting and accounting accuracy in the past decade, it’s no surprise that learning departments are paying more attention to finance professionals than ever before.
What might be something of a revelation is the fact that a good deal of the new learning that has been or is going to be created for finance personnel isn’t related to technical skills, but instead involves decidedly nontechnical knowledge such as leadership and business strategy. According to recent research from ACS Learning Services, learning functions are investing more of their efforts into a variety of programs targeted at the finance and accounting departments.
“I think what we’re seeing, in general, is that more and more organizations are moving from a fairly informal approach to training people in their finance and accounting departments to a more formal approach,” said Robert Blondin, ACS Learning Services’ vice president and chief learning strategist. “Traditionally, in a lot of organizations, the primary way you learned was on the job — perhaps you were mentored by your predecessor or were coached by peers and managers in the specifics of your job. For a variety of reasons, more organizations are moving to where they have formal training for [finance] people when they come in the door that’s focused on what they need to do to perform consistently in the roles they have and make transitions from contributor roles to manager roles.”
Apparently, these kinds of offerings have already improved performance within their narrow roles. The ways in which financial results are achieved, the transparency in processing across the organization and the accuracy of reporting have all experienced across-the-board improvements due to this approach, Blondin said.
However, it has also had positive consequences that weren’t entirely anticipated, such as improved employee retention. This upshot has been caused by a clear commitment to developing these professionals to move into roles of greater responsibility.
“More and more businesses are asking their finance and accounting folks to go beyond simply reporting what has happened and make sure that financial reporting is correct,” he said. “They’ve asked them to take a seat at the table to start getting more involved in planning for the future and determining the appropriate direction for the business from a financial point of view.
“Almost every organization I’ve worked with over the past three to five years is already moving in this direction or has expressed interest in doing so. It comes across in different ways — it’s sometimes just expressed as a general need for leadership. But, I think the real underlying issue is that the people in finance and accounting want to be better business partners with the people in the line organizations. They don’t always have the proper business context in terms of how they fit into the business as a whole and, therefore, how they fit into that context. They also might not have the personal skills and the communication skills needed to work with people in the business units.”
To get their finance employees into the leadership pipeline, many of these organizations have looked for appropriate off-the-shelf development programs. While these can have a positive impact, Blondin warned against relying on them too much.
“I think those are necessary for building the skills that are needed, but not sufficient by themselves,” he explained. “The organizations that are really succeeding are doing so because they’re focused on making sure their folks understand the business and their role in it. Another element successful organizations are focusing on is making sure their people have the ability to analyze business situations from a financial point of view, and express a point of view to business units as to what they should do.”
Also, Blondin cautioned against losing sight of the importance of continued technical training for finance staff, as learning departments attempt to develop proficiencies such as leadership and strategic analysis.
“Even though there has been a shift toward things like business partnerships and leadership, we need to make clear that the need for technical skills in areas like revenue recognition and inventory accounting has not gone away. If anything, it’s stronger than ever. The key is balance: What’s the balance between the technical skills you need for accuracy and consistency and the managerial and analytical skills you need to play a broader role in the organization?”