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Small- and medium-sized practices (SMPs) are champions of innovation and adaptability—when they are performing well. Training is a vital component in keeping SMPs effective: maintaining and future-proofing technical skills and knowledge are central to service delivery and compliance with professional obligations. However, dynamic organizations primed for growth and development will need more than technical skills from their people, so successful SMPs must extend the remit of training to empower staff and propel success. The challenge is selecting areas to cover with the limited time and resources available to tackle three key factors: the future needs of clients, the future needs of the SMP, and what staff will value in their careers. 

This article draws from insights gained at a recent meeting of IFAC’s Small and Medium Practices Advisory Group (SMPAG).  

The story since the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was a significant driver in innovation in training delivery for organizations of all sizes. These innovations continue to influence training in both SMPs and Professional Accountancy Organizations (PAOs). One of the biggest areas of continuity is the shift in balance towards virtual and hybrid engagement. The popularity of this approach reflects the increased reach, reduced cost, and enhanced flexibility compared to face-to-face delivery. However, the lack of physical interaction may not be effective for all learning styles, and virtual delivery suffers from problems such as technical issues, cyber security, and privacy risks.

The creativity in training approaches unleashed for many SMPs and PAOs during the pandemic continues to be refined further.  

Innovation in delivery methods and practices

The advent of widespread online learning generated a need to maintain engagement through interaction and bite-sized learning. The focus on responding to different learning styles, regardless of method of delivery, has since grown. Some of the innovative practices taking root include:

  • Gamification and building alertness checks (such as quizzes or scenarios) into training to make it more accessible and realistic.
  • Creating communities of practice and learning networks (such as online forums, groups, and chats), which can facilitate peer-to-peer learning.
  • Bringing bite-sized, face-to-face learning through initiatives such as lunch and learn sessions.
  • Incorporating social events into training days to improve attendance. 
  • Multi-modality learning, which engages two senses at a time (e.g., a video with accompanying words on the screen). This can reduce multitasking through creating relevant distractions within the learning. The ability to view e-training at faster than 1x speed can also increase uptake and reduce multi-tasking—so it can be beneficial for some learning styles.  
  • Cross-functional training—for example, bringing in experts from other disciplines (such as IT) to deliver relevant training. This can give attendees opportunities to ask questions that help to reduce technical and language barriers between professions.

Changes are not limited to delivery methods. Engagement by PAOs and SMPs with stakeholders, such as universities, employers, regulators, and NGOs, is becoming more active and more commonplace. This engagement ultimately enables SMPs to leverage expertise, resources, and influence from these stakeholders.  PAOs are also supporting collective deals with training providers to access improved rates for SMPs in some jurisdictions.

Expansion in use of technology

The ever-expanding use of technology at SMPs creates an ongoing need to update staff knowledge of software and applications.  The pandemic heightened the use of digital platforms and tools—such as webinars, podcasts, e-learning, and mobile apps—to deliver training content that is interactive, engaging, and accessible. Concurrently, greater use of remote working technologies—for example, cloud-based systems, audit automation software, and work-recording systems. The growth of use of AI, and especially generative AI tools, is the most important recent development, and will require consideration of new policies and practices to ensure ethical and effective use.   

Linked to this is the expansion of the availability of data and tools for data analysis. Developments in AI are cultivating automated analysis techniques that can create actionable insights. These tools are becoming increasingly important in decision making at all levels of the organization, but especially in strategic decision making. This will create new challenges for accountants in interpreting and presenting findings to support organizations. The importance of data training will continue to grow as a result.   

Embracing sustainability

The evolution of SMP operating models and shift towards advisory services likely will continue with sustainability reporting, assurance, and advisory services providing key opportunities for growth. Reporting and assurance for SMEs will initially be voluntary in most cases, meaning that SMPs may need to focus at first on advisory opportunities to gain access to this emerging area. IFAC’s Small Business Sustainability Checklist identifies some of the initiatives and actions that SMEs may need to undertake on their sustainability journey. It is essential that SMP staff prepare themselves, with the relevant training, to deliver relevant services.  SMPs can make training more attractive by incorporating social and environmental issues, such as sustainability, diversity, and ethics; these issues often are personally and professionally relevant and rewarding for staff.

Emerging training trends for SMPs  

Technical training still forms a bedrock for internal development programs within SMPs. Ensuring the direct relevance of this training to current and expected workstreams reinforces a good understanding of its value. The growth in services offered by SMPs, as highlighted in “Small(er) but with a Mighty Purpose,” along with the need to increase the attractiveness of the profession and staff retention, make staff satisfaction and well-being  important topics for consideration, too.    In addition to the growth areas discussed above, some of the emerging trends that have been identified for training in SMPs include:

  • Continuing focus on communication skills. SMPs often need to better convey information to clients, colleagues, regulators, and other stakeholders. Many SMPs are building on feedback received from these stakeholder groups to design programs to improve communication skills.  The growth in the use of technology and automation may also require specific attention to designing and presenting dashboards to clients. Improved communication can raise client satisfaction scores, heighten team cohesion, and improve stakeholder relations.
  • Greater emphasis on business development skills. Training in opportunity identification, service promotion, marketing, networking, and negotiation is more actively being sought for SMP staff of all grades. The digital tools and record keeping useful for managing client relationships and business development are often a related area of focus. Such initiatives can empower staff to find and pursue new opportunities for the practice. 
  • Growth in dedicated training programs for partners and senior leaders. Training to support leaders to create effective practices is becoming increasingly popular in SMPs in many jurisdictions. These programs can aim to improve practice effectiveness and value delivery to clients, or to build adaptability and innovative thinking. Many initiatives to support intra-personal and professional skills—such as leadership style, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, and ethical reasoning—have also been adopted in many practices. Such interventions can create better leaders and role models which can in turn help to increase staff retention and satisfaction, inform future strategy, and fuel growth for practices. 
  • An emphasis on mental health and stress-management. There is growing recognition in some jurisdictions of the stress and mental toll that working in a practice may generate for some staff. Supporting mental well-being through training can have many benefits, such as keeping staff effective—and happy—in their roles.

In-house or external?

The sourcing of training, regardless of method, can be either in-house or external. There are many facets to making the right choice. External providers can charge significant fees for training, but internal training also carries burdens.  The opportunity cost of the trainer’s time for delivery and for developing materials can be significant.   External training can be even more expensive, but it can also offer value through access to experts, best practices, and networking opportunities.

Regardless of approach to sourcing, quality is imperative. Whilst internal training can allow greater customization and tailoring to the specific needs and context of the SMP in question, there can be limitations, too. The availability and competence of internal trainers, and the quality and diversity of the content and methods, may not always match that of external trainers. For example, highly specialized areas, such as AI or sustainability, may call for expertise that is unavailable in-house.  

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for SMPs when it comes to choosing between internal and external sourcing of training options, as each option has its pros and cons, and each SMP has its own goals, needs, and resources. SMPs should evaluate their options carefully, and consider using a combination of both, to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks of each option.


Many SMPs are high performing organizations, and training is an essential component of keeping them this way. The ongoing success and sustainability of practices ultimately depends on the quality of people who deliver services within them, even in this emerging age of technology. Training is not something only for junior staff, but also for the most senior people in the organization, who will be making the most important decisions about the future within SMPs. Limited resources at the level of individual SMPs means there is an important role for PAOs to play in supporting and driving innovation in training in the SMP space. 

Additional Resources


Harpal Singh
Harpal Singh


Harpal's role at IFAC entails contributing to and promoting the development, adoption, and implementation of high-quality international standards. Harpal also has responsibility for IFAC’s SME (small- and medium-sized entities), SMP (small- and medium-sized practices), and research initiatives, which include developing thought leadership, public policy, and advocacy materials.

Prior to joining IFAC, Harpal spent ten years working for Grant Thornton UK LLP, where he was first part of the Public Sector and Commercial Assurance practices, before joining the Financial Reporting technical team. Harpal helped develop the firm’s Financial Reporting advisory offering outside of London and then joined the Business Consulting team specializing in finance consulting and talent solutions. Prior to joining GT, Harpal was a Public Sector auditor for the Audit Commission in the UK.

Keddie Waller

Keddie Waller is an experienced policy advocate who is passionate about the important role professional accountants play in their community as the trusted adviser. 

Previous roles Keddie has held include Head of Public Practice and SME with CPA Australia, where she and her team were responsible for the development, servicing, representation, and compliance of CPA Australia public practice members, and Senior Policy Adviser - Financial Planning.