In the shake-out of the global financial crisis, there are positives. An outstanding one is the fresh focus it has given organisations’ executive teams on learning and development. When they invest in employees’ postgraduate studies – from full degree programs to short courses – executives are homing in on their relevance to the organisation and the individual, in particular practical learning.
“Organisations are more focused on return on investment and also the people they choose to invest in, and there’s greater emphasis on quality programs,” says Professor Chris Styles, deputy dean at the Australian School of Business and director of the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) at the University of New South Wales. “Companies still want to invest in their people because that is critical, but there’s more discernment about ensuring programs will deliver.”
Eddie Tritton, the director, Private Team, for Melbourne Business School’s (MBS) Mt Eliza Executive Education programs, also notices refinement in the market. “Businesses seem to know more about what they want,” Tritton says. “They’ve been through a few years of stress and they’re looking for real learning interventions rather than quick fixes.”
Styles sees multiple shifts in what’s known as the post-experience business education market. “Education is great for helping people to think and know things, but there’s now an expectation that people will be able to deliver on projects – that is, that they can do things. A very critical practical element has come to the fore. Employers don’t want people who just know about corporate finance theory and marketing strategy, they want them to be able to implement it.”
Innovation is also front of mind, Styles says. “There are expectations around bringing in new ideas, being able to challenge conventional wisdom and orthodoxy. They don’t want people who say ‘I know best’, but people who can question the status quo and do things more effectively and efficiently. They want [postgraduates] to have been exposed to ideas and real cases that will allow them to challenge and innovate.”
Collaboration is also important. “Business is a team sport and there’s an expectation that people can work in diverse teams,” Styles adds.
At global telecommunications equipment and service provider Ericsson, a very specific position on learning and development has taken hold. Training – a subset of performance management for the company’s 110,000 employees worldwide – has to be linked to a part of career development, says David Spong FCPA, CFO and director, finance and commercial, at Ericsson Australia. “It’s a building block in a broader organisational capability, not something that just happens out of the blue,” Spong says. “Someone can’t just say, ‘I want to do an advanced Excel course’, or an MBA for that matter: it has to complement what they are doing, meet their development needs or fill a capability gap. People can ask [to undertake training] but we’ll only support it if we see alignment.”
Most important to the decision on any course is how its outcomes can be applied at Ericsson. To maximise their training opportunities “employees take the learning from courses and reflect on them with mentors or coaches”, Spong says. In this context, “learning by doing” becomes a continual process and the return on learning and development investment is also boosted by a requirement to share.
“Once people have done a course they’re required to synthesise or share their learning with the team when they come back to the workplace,” Spong says.
Business education providers are picking up on the “learning by doing” theme. Tritton, charged with designing MBS’s customised executive education programs for about 80 private sector clients, rolls out about 200 programs every year. Classroom, or “the didactic immersive” experience, is just 10 per cent of most programs these days, he says.
“We try to include 20 per cent coaching or mentoring and 70 per cent on-the-job experience – the 10 per cent must connect with the rest to make it a whole learning experience. If it’s not linked, then it’s a waste of time because participants forget what they’ve learned in a few days.”
At Arrium, the ASX-listed mining and materials business formerly known as OneSteel, practical workplace learning is a priority. One example is the annual selection of six people on the cusp of senior leadership to participate in the AGSM’s Consortium program. This brings together teams from non-competing organisations to develop individuals’ competencies and collective capabilities for their organisations.
Before each year’s program an Arrium executive sets a challenging project for the team to consider. “Participants have this project in mind while they attend a 5½-day residential program that covers concepts such as introducing innovation and managing disruptive innovation in organisations, analysing competitors and understanding organisational culture,” explains Sarah Livissianis, Arrium’s general manager of talent. She is responsible for overseeing the selection of company’s participants and guiding them through the program.
The team members, drawn from across its decentralised businesses, spend six months working together on their project before making a presentation to the company’s lead (CEO and senior executive) team. While not a headline requirement, usually aspects of their findings or some of their recommendations will be implemented.
Once people have done a course they’re required to share their learning with the team when they come back to the workplace.– David Spong, Ericsson Australia
In wake of the then OneSteel’s acquisition of international mining consumable business Moly-Cop, those attending last year’s program were asked to look at how the company had structured itself to acquire the business and compare this with how other large organisations prepared for major mergers and acquisitions. At the 2010 program, in which Livissianis also participated, the team looked at OneSteel’s model for supplying steel to businesses.
What Arrium likes about this program is that it feeds directly back into the business. Participants share knowledge and learn with people from disparate parts of the organisation.
“We try to get a good mix across steel, mining and corporate,” Livissianis says. “Last year one came from Canada. Insights also come from the teams from other organisations on the program and the challenges they face.” In the year she participated, Livissianis found herself working alongside teams from a public utility, a telco (Optus) and a bank (Westpac).
“It’s good stimulation for getting people to think at the next level, but in a safe environment,” she says. “It took me out of my day-to-day job and got me thinking like a lead team member – strategically.”
For most of the 11,000 who work in the Arrium businesses, development is focused at the business level on a needs basis. “We sponsor a lot of people through postgraduate programs if they have a particular need, whether it’s an MBA or another qualification,” Livissianis says. At the group level, it’s about programs that are customised to people’s individual needs rather than across the board criteria. “We prefer programs that allow people to learn for themselves. Theoretical concepts are important, but people must be able to apply them in a meaningful way in their job.”
Individuals seeking career change through postgraduate programs commonly look to the generalist MBA and Executive MBA (EMBA) programs for transformation. Employers today may be more sceptical. Certainly, they are less likely to sponsor their employees through MBA programs than they were 10 or 15 years ago, Styles confirms, although some people enrolled in the AGSM EMBA are sponsored in part, either financially or with time off.
“All courses have some practical component in which students often can work on a real project for their employers,” he says.
While the practical aspects of MBA programs are highly valued, Ericsson’s Spong believes they have more impact if undertaken after significant working experience – he likes to see “a few grey hairs” on the head of someone with the credential.
In finance at Ericsson, the company is supporting several employees through the more targeted Master of Finance degree because it has been deemed specifically advantageous to their careers as well as to the organisation. No small undertaking for student or company, employer-supported degree programs come with handcuff agreements that tie employees to the company for several years, ensuring Ericsson receives a worthwhile return on its investment. Those who leave within two years after qualifying must repay the cost of their postgrad studies.
Until recently the most dominant university postgraduate programs in the fields of finance and accounting, such as the Master of Commerce and the Master of Professional Accounting (MPAcc), have had no requirement to offer practical components in addition to coursework. A widely offered conversion degree program, the MPAcc enables non-accounting graduates to meet the education entry requirements for Australian professional accounting bodies.
However, regulatory requirements established by the Australian Qualifications Framework Council and introduced earlier this year have imposed the need for a structured workplace learning experience at postgraduate masters degree level.
The Program is unique for its vocational orientation, ensuring CPA-qualified people have the competencies employers expect.– Robert Thomason, CPA Australia
The Australian Business Deans Council has argued that degree programs such as the MPAcc, which is accredited by CPA Australia, already meet the requirements for structured learning experiences as they have been developed in collaboration with professional accounting bodies.
In the competitive and increasingly global market for further business education, the CPA Program stands out for matching the more rigorous demands of today’s employers as they seek practical learning for employees, argues Robert Thomason, executive general manager of business development at CPA Australia. Evidence is in the fact that more than half the students enrolled in the CPA Program are sponsored by employers.
Thomason points to the three-year practical experience requirement that is part of the CPA Program. Professional experience can happen before, in conjunction with (the preferred option) or after the professional level, he says. Required competencies are in the areas of technical, business, leadership and personal effectiveness – their achievement must be attested to by a workplace mentor who is a full member of a recognised accounting body.
“It’s a structured workplace-based learning activity that’s gained during full-time or part-time employment,” Thomason says. “The Program is unique for its vocational orientation, ensuring that CPA-qualified people have the competencies employers expect. Some 400 academics and practitioners globally have been involved in designing the CPA Program.”
Changes brought on by employer feedback in recent years have included reducing the number of electives to make clearer the capabilities of CPA graduates. Employer requirements also informed the introduction of the foundation level, which bridges the gap for graduates wishing to skill up to enter the professional level of the CPA Program.
Importantly, Thomason says, when weighed against other postgraduate offerings, the benefits of a member organisation program lie in a qualification with well-defined outcomes that’s recognised globally, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
What employers want
Achievement Matters, a benchmarking project aimed at identifying national standards for graduates in accounting at the end of a degree, is targeting the communication abilities of postgraduates as its first priority.
The project, a collaboration between universities Australia-wide and partly funded by CPA Australia, is designed to meet the expectations gap between higher education and industry.
“Communication has long been identified as important for all accounting graduates – and employers have expressed concerns about the communication standards of students,” says Phil Hancock, Winthrop Professor of Accounting and Finance and deputy dean of teaching and learning at the University of Western Australia, who is co-leading the Achievement Matters project.
In particular focus are the written communication skills of students coming out of the masters conversion program (Master of Professional Accounting), most of whom are international students, Hancock says.
He was co-author of the 2009 report Accounting for the Future, which surveyed major employers across Australia – including the Big Four accounting firms – in a review of the changing skill requirements for professional accounting graduates.
Access the following CPA Library items online
Informal learning in the workplace, by Michael Eraut, Development and Learning in Organizations, 2011
Learning by doing: a comprehensive guide to simulations, computer games, and pedagogy in e-learning and other educational experiences (eBook)
Employability and entrepreneurship embedded in the business curriculum, by Chris Procter, Journal of Chinese Entrepreneurship, 2011
Contact CPA Library on 1300 737 373 or email email@example.com
This article is from the October 2012 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.