<p><em>By re-engineering content delivery, Grant Thornton saved significant time and money. That should make any accountant smile.</em><br /><br />Accounting has always been a complex profession, and this is only increasing as it moves into the 21st century. New technologies, globalization, proliferating regulations and the growing intricacy of business transactions have created a dynamic environment that requires accounting, tax and advisory professionals to continually maintain and improve their knowledge and skills.<br /><br />Some professional development is even mandated by the government. Certified public accountants (CPAs) are licensed professionals with continuing professional education (CPE) requirements averaging 40 hours a year. State boards of accountancy set the rules and regulations regarding continuing professional education for CPAs.<br /><br />As such, learning is an integral part of the business strategy at Grant Thornton LLP, the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd., a global accounting, tax and advisory organization. With 51 offices in the U.S., the 5,500 partners and employees of Grant Thornton LLP provide accounting services to public and privately held clients.<br /><br /><strong>Fixing Devirtualized Webcasts</strong><br />Up until December 2008, Grant Thornton used an enterprise webcast environment to deliver live, virtual programs to its professionals. The number of available seats, however, was constrained by the high cost of additional licenses. The firm relied on multiple employees traveling to a single meeting space and using a shared computer projected to a group to attend webcasts.<br /><br />This approach had several downsides. First, all interactions and questions had to address an entire room of people rather than an individual learner. It also produced a lack of integration between the firm’s learning management system (LMS) and the webcast system, which meant CPE credits had to be processed manually — at peak times by temporary workers.<br /><br />The existing platform also did not offer rebroadcast capabilities that provided CPE, a critical need when trying to accommodate program leader schedules and attendance by hundreds of professionals. <br /><br />Last, only 20 percent of webcasts had participation levels that required a group setting; 80 percent of sessions could have used individual log-ins. This, however, could not be determined in advance, since precise numbers were not known until the day of the program. <br /><br />These issues resulted in the firm having a greater dependence than needed on face-to-face programs. In 2007, 73 percent of Grant Thornton’s programs occurred face to face versus only 6 percent in a live, virtual format.<br /><br />Seeking to support the learning requirements of its people, Grant Thornton re-engineered the webcast technology infrastructure that delivers and tracks virtual programs. The business case for this initiative was clear: The firm could save time and expenses by reducing travel back to offices to attend webcasts while directing learning at individual understanding. <br /><br />Strategic Learning, Grant Thornton’s 25-person centralized learning organization, saw these challenges and proposed an answer. The solution and implementation team was led by Richard Rykhus, Grant Thornton’s director of learning technologies. He is one of eight learning professionals in the center of expertise who deliver shared learning services, including technology, operations, measurement and leadership development.<br /><br />“Our senior leadership team, which reviews any significant investments planned for learning, gave this initiative to innovate the webcast delivery platform a very high priority,” Rykhus said. “Out of literally a few dozen potential projects, they saw this project’s enormous potential to impact learning effectiveness and operational efficiency.”<br /><strong><br />Implementing the Technology</strong><br />Grant Thornton was already using the LearnLive Connect platform by LearnLive Technologies as a secure way to deliver webcasts to the marketplace, which includes customers, prospects and other external audiences. The platform had proven scalability, having supported several hundred participants at a time. According to Rykhus, it was judged to be capable of handling the company’s formal CPE sponsorship program, possessing the ability to automate CPE processing by tracking all of its records and paperwork.<br /><br />The teams at Grant Thornton and LearnLive managed the implementation process over the course of approximately three months beginning Aug. 1, 2008. This included the integration of LearnLive Connect with the firm’s LMS. The capacity of the new delivery system was increased to 500 participants per webcast, compared to 200 with the previous platform. After conducting several pilot projects, the system went live in December 2008. As of June 2010, more than 3 million minutes have been logged on the platform by webcast participants.<br /><br />“Webcast participants don’t have to download and install any software, which is one of the biggest benefits of the hosted software delivery approach,” Rykhus said. “The browser-based interface means fewer snafus and lower technical support costs.”<br /><strong><br />Communicating Change</strong><br />Strategic Learning recognized that internal change management would help determine the level of success with the new webcast platform. Rykhus and his team conducted a detailed analysis of all stakeholders — including participants, sponsors, local and national administrators, and learning design and development professionals.<br /><br />“We had to communicate appropriately with each group,” he said. “Participants and sponsors actually had little change to absorb. The greatest changes, and thus most change management resources, occurred within our own team and our firm’s continuing education administrator network. <br /><br />“Change management was also critical in working with IT. We weren’t reliant upon them, but they had to review, test and ultimately support the choice to move to the new platform since their existing infrastructure would provide support for all platform users.” </p><p><strong>The Bottom Line</strong><br />According to Rykhus, significant efficiencies have been gained by Grant Thornton. Because the firm was able to increase the number of webcast seats, its professionals do not need to travel to the office to participate in a webcast. Instead, they participate from any location with an Internet connection, saving valuable time. Rykhus said, “This has saved our firm thousands of man-hours that can be turned instead into billable hours.”<br /><br />Grant Thornton can also now offer CPE for rebroadcasts, giving its professionals multiple date and time alternatives to accommodate their schedules, as well as reducing the number of times its program leaders must present a session to just one. Repeat sessions of webcasts leverage recordings of initial sessions, so a program leader is not required to present a second or third time; a live person is needed only to respond to text chat. Importantly, this live text chat monitor function means that rebroadcast webcasts qualify for CPE credit.<br /><br />The upgraded webcast tool set also provides the opportunity to convert some face-to-face programs to webcasts or even Web-based self-study courses. Since these tools come at a fixed cost, the elimination of variable costs related to face-to-face programs favorably impacts budgets.<br /><br />“In the first year, the firm’s investment paid for itself very quickly, with savings well into six figures,” Rykhus said. “We’ve been able to take classes that were delivered as three- or four-day live, in-person programs, some with over 100 participants, and deliver those virtually to the desktop. When you eliminate costs including travel, food, lodging and materials, it is very significant.”<br /><br />In addition to allowing better capacity management, the webcast platform has reduced time spent on webcast CPE processing by 80 percent, which results in less money spent on overtime and reduced hiring of temps who would typically input data. CPE processing automation also provides Grant Thornton’s professionals access to more current and up-to-date records. This allowed the firm to increase its number of webcasts from 120 in 2007 to more than 300 in 2009 — without adding any staff or infrastructure.<br /><br />Grant Thornton has also successfully shifted its delivery mix. As of June 2010, the firm now runs 15 percent of its programs in a live, virtual manner versus about 60 percent of its programs in a face-to-face format.<br /><br /><strong>Improvements in Effectiveness </strong><br />The firm has achieved better learning outcomes with the scalable webcast platform. With the increased number of seats, the firm now plans and designs webcasts for desktop delivery instead of conference rooms. This allows for learning design that addresses and tests individual knowledge instead of group knowledge.<br /><br />“The new webcast system also increases accountability,” Rykhus said. “Individual learners must participate throughout the webcast in order to earn CPE, as their participation in polls [and] quizzes can be tracked individually, unlike our past anonymous group participation approach. Now we ask individually directed questions, and professionals are more engaged. Our increased learning satisfaction scores reflect this shift; they averaged 5.76 out of 7 with the previous webcast system, but have improved to 5.94.<br /><br />“Being clear in knowing what we wanted to measure at the beginning of the project has made it vastly easier to make those measurements now,” Rykhus said. “We focused on dollars saved, operational efficiency and learning effectiveness, and we’ve seen measureable improvements in all three areas.”</p>
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