Developing Professional Capabilities—Especially Soft Skills—In an Online Learning Environment
Simon Hann | February 3, 2021
The future of the profession
A 2017 Board Paper written by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) summarised the impetus and challenge behind the reimagination of the CA Program, when it asked:
‘How can we create relevance and value for our members and the community so that we can build a sustainable future for our profession?’
This question has always been relevant, but in today’s digitally driven and disrupted environment, the need to find an answer has become increasingly urgent. This is especially true for the year 2020. With the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic having been fully realised, this year is being referred to by many economists as “the slingshot to 2023”. Meaning that many of the predictions being made about the next five years are happening now.
This is the environment in which newly qualified Chartered Accountants have encountered a transition. Previously, they settled into relatively stable and time-honoured careers where their technical and analytical abilities were highly prized. Today, our Chartered Accountants Program candidates are competing for roles requiring difference-makers, growth-accelerators, critical thinkers, innovators, and digitally-savvy experts who can guide new initiatives to help businesses navigate disruption and unpredictable environments.
Graduating Chartered Accountants are increasingly expected to be job-ready, adequately equipped to handle our digital world, as they quickly apply integrated technical and professional capabilities to solve complex challenges.
In this context, our new education program has been challenged to adapt to create job-ready graduates by focusing on developing the graduates’ professional capabilities and maintaining the high standards and rigour of the Chartered Accountants Program, all in an online learning environment.
The CA Capability Framework
To make the new Chartered Accountants Program more relevant, and to support the development of members in a broader sense while we adapt to the changing future of work, CA ANZ first had to answer the question:
‘What capabilities do the Chartered Accountants of today—and of the future—need?’
This is an ambitious and complex question, especially considering how rapidly the world is changing. However, it is exactly this question that we sought to answer through the robust research and consultation process we initiated in 2018.
Through this process, we addressed the changing nature of our disrupted and turbulent environment, while mapping the career stages, professional journeys and work needs of Chartered Accountants in Australia and New Zealand. The process spanned career trajectories, to ensure that we could provide a Chartered Accountant’s balanced development for today’s and tomorrow’s world of work.
CA ANZ conducted comprehensive research into the future capabilities of Chartered Accountants. Our resultant CA Capability Model was launched in 2020 and has informed our approach of integrating deep technical expertise and broad professional skills within the new Chartered Accountants Program.
The CA Capability Model focuses on four domain areas:
- Technical (professional expertise)
- Personal (mindset and intellect)
- Business (business context)
- Leadership (people and future)
Amplifying professional capabilities in the new Chartered Accountants Program
The Chartered Accountants Program encourages the growth of our candidate’s professional capabilities to ensure that they develop into:
Throughout the new Chartered Accountants Program, candidates are provided opportunities to develop and practise both professional and technical capabilities through a variety of strategies—by offering real-world engagement, providing authentic simulations and challenges, and embedding professional skills.
Real-world engagement provides candidates valuable opportunities to practically apply what they have learned. This allows them to focus on applying their knowledge to the workplace, using industry links to highlight and refresh real-world examples and activities. The content of the Chartered Accountants Program has been developed through extensive engagement with industry and thought leaders, and includes interviews, videos, and podcasts, which keeps the content authentic and links it to current events and issues within industry.
Candidates work authentically by using digital platforms that replicate the workplace. They are also required to create workplace documents and dashboards, and use commonly used accounting software and workplace tools, such as PowerBI and Excel. Additionally, the program embeds and assesses candidates’ communication, teamwork and collaboration skills through team-based activities and assessments, and networking opportunities provided via virtual classrooms. The Chartered Accountants Program is delivered either fully online or through a hybrid option that has both online and face-to-face elements. Both options have been designed to maximise the impact of their respective digital or physical settings, with an emphasis on the effective collaboration and team building expected in a modern workplace.
At the heart of the new Chartered Accountants Program is a digital learning environment that allows candidates to learn in a way that replicates the way they work. This digital learning environment is supported by online tools, including a digital study guide, microlearning videos, podcasts, infographics, case studies, practice questions and interactive examples. The digital content is easily accessible via desktop or mobile and caters to candidates’ diverse study needs, preferences and styles.
Authentic simulations and challenges
In the new Chartered Accountants Program, candidates use the digital learning environment to work through rich, authentic case studies and activities that incorporate professional and technical skills. These case studies and activities become increasingly complex as the program progresses. They also incorporate the skill of finding, using and creating real-world documents that contain ethical dilemmas hidden throughout—replicating what can occur in actual accounting practice. The case studies often have multiple acceptable answers to reflect actual business decision making. These answers are assessed, not just on the technical response provided, but also on the way in which the candidates’ insights were communicated to the appropriate audience.
Embedding professional capabilities
Assessment is critical to the way in which the Chartered Accountants Program embeds professional capabilities. The new Chartered Accountants Program leverages invigilated exams, digital assessments, written submissions, group workshops and presentations to assess all aspects of a candidate's capabilities. Rather than rewarding candidates for being great at passing exams, the variety of assessment methods ensure that our successful candidates are great at being adaptive and effective Chartered Accountants.
The assessments are based on real-world scenarios, so candidates are required to integrate technical and professional capabilities. Beyond technical analysis, candidates are asked to prepare reports, draft emails and deliver simulated presentations to stakeholders. Rather than being presented with a defined data set, candidates are consistently required to filter large amounts of information and distil insights to make appropriate recommendations—just as they’ll be expected to do as a practising Chartered Accountants in the real world.
In this example, candidates apply their professional skills in the context of an accounting problem. They must prepare and present a report, and collate and summarise the key insights for the CEO. They are required to use their professional judgement and critical thinking to perform the data analysis, and they must apply their teamwork, collaboration and communication skills to provide peer feedback and summarise the reports at the level appropriate for the audience. Candidates also need to identify and address any ethical issues and respond to a changing brief by using an adaptive mindset.
Assessments are designed to measure and provide feedback on candidates’ professional skills. CA ANZ engages and trains Chartered Accountants to mark assessments using performance criteria to judge the quality of candidate performance in different skill areas, for example, in communication where a criterion might be “language and tone are appropriate to the audience”. Each assessment criteria includes a grading scale so that each criterion is measured in terms of levels of performance—from highest to lowest—with quality descriptors specifying the performance requirements for each level on the measurement scale.
Leading the way in developing Chartered Accountants of the future
Ongoing digital disruption and automation continue to transform business and the accounting profession alike. Routine and repetitive tasks are quickly being turned over to AI and bot-technology, and emerging technologies are creating several ongoing and unpredictable changes.
Current socioeconomic instability and the unpredictable business landscape means that professional capabilities are more important than ever. The Chartered Accountants Program integrates the development of deep technical expertise, directly connected to strong professional capabilities in a digital environment through real-world engagement, authentic simulations and challenges, and embedded capability assessment. The Chartered Accountants Program is leading in this volatile environment by actively developing adaptive, critically thinking candidates who are able to apply scepticism, solve complex problems and become trusted partners in business.