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Keep Learning

by Frederick Niswander, CPA, PhD

You just got out of school and don't want to crack a book again. That's not a good idea. If you stop learning, you will travel one of the quickest paths to career obsolescence that you can find. When you stop learning, you stop growing both personally and professionally. When you stop growing, you stop advancing in the business world.

Think of yourself in terms of a manufacturing plant. A large plant may have hundreds of machines which produce various parts. The type, size, and composition of each part is determined by the tools and dies which the machine uses. For instance, a certain set of tools and dies will produce parts for a driver-side car door, while a different set will make passenger-side door parts. When a company wants to change from making one door to another, they perform a process called re-tooling.

Although you are much more complex than a machine, you also need to change your "output" over the course of a career---you need to re-tool your knowledge base. Unlike many factories, you don't re-tool once-in-a-while, you need to do so on a continuous basis.

Why? Many of the ideas, technologies, and business procedures which serve you well today, will be obsolete in the future. We can catch a glimpse of the future by looking at the past. For example, we communicate today by using e-mail, faxes, and voice mail---technologies which virtually didn't exist five years ago. Over a longer period of time, we can see even more changes. Twenty years ago in accounting and business, there were only 24 SFAS and 23 SAS pronouncements, LBOs and IPOs were rare, derivatives were not used, money market and cash management accounts were in their infancy, stock options were simple and were issued to relatively few individuals, auditors audited around the computer, just-in-time inventory practices didn't exist, and a company with sales of $1 billion was REALLY big. From a technological standpoint, the PC had barely been born 20 years ago, the WWW wasn't even a gleam in someone's eye, laser printers hadn't been invented, a router was something you used on wood, a hub was the center of a wheel, cellular phones were a dream, and a pocket calculator wouldn't fit in your pocket.

What will the next 20 years bring? Your guess is as good as mine. I do know that success in tomorrow's business will require a different set of skills than you possess today. I also know that the pace of change will accelerate, particularly concerning technology and its application to accounting and business.

It is vitally important to your career that you keep learning about accounting, business, and technology. You have to re-tool your knowledge base and you have to do it again and again and again. Your re-learning process has to be an integral, planned component of your career and personal development. If you don't start now and don't keep at it, you will be left in the dust.

So, how do you keep re-tooling yourself? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Learning needs to become second nature. It becomes second nature with practice. The phrase "learn something new every day" should be your mantra. What you learn may be technical or ordinary, it may involve personal or business knowledge, and you may learn it in an informal or formal manner. It doesn't really matter what you learn or how you learn it. What does matter, is that you learn on a continuous basis. Get in the habit of learning. Ask yourself, at the end of each day, "What did I learn today?" A day is not successful unless you learned something new.

2. Be inquisitive. One way to get in the habit of learning every day is to always be curious---to ask questions. Try to learn how accounting and business work and why they work the way they do. You may have been shy in school and rarely raised your hand. You can't be shy now because your job depends on your level of knowledge. When you ask questions, you will probably learn something you don't already know.

3. Constantly improve your computer-related knowledge and skills. At a minimum, you need to use e-mail and the WWW, and you need to be reasonably proficient with a word processing and spreadsheet program. Buy a modem for home use and sign up with an Internet service provider to get access to the Web and e-mail. You also need to be aware of technological developments which might affect your career. The WWW didn't exist four or five years ago. What's the next big change? Keep up-to-date by looking at technology-oriented Web sites, some of which are listed at the end of this article.

4. Keep abreast of developments in business, accounting, and your field of specialty. You learned about today's accounting rules when you were in school. You now need to focus on tomorrow's rules. You also need to improve your understanding of the world of business---how it operates and how your company fits into the picture. When your boss asks you how a proposed FASB rule will affect your business, or he/she asks your opinion concerning the just-announced merger of two public companies, you don't want to sit there with your mouth hanging open.
You can keep yourself informed in at least three ways. First, use the WWW. Identify five or six Web sites which provide accounting- and business-related news. Addresses of some sites are given at the end of this article. Visit them at least once a week.

Second, read general business publications. Subscribe to one or more of the following: New Accountant, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, Time, Newsweek, or your local newspaper. Make time in your schedule to read them.

Third, join one or more professional organization(s) related to your field. If you are in public practice or industry, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants should be on the top of your list. If your job entails management accounting, join the Institute of Management Accountants. If you are an internal auditor, the Institute of Internal Auditors is the organization for you. Membership in each organization includes a subscription to a monthly publication with articles and columns pertinent to the profession and the organization. Addresses and Web sites for each of these groups are given at the end of this article.

5. Improve your written and verbal communications skills. Superiors, clients, suppliers, and others will evaluate you and your abilities based, in large part, on written and verbal interactions. Your knowledge and the content of your message are both important, but you also have to deliver that message in a way that is clear, concise, and understandable. You may be the smartest accountant in your office, but if you can't get your point across to others, no one will know.

Your communications skills will only get better if you practice. To hone your verbal skills, consider joining Toastmasters or a similar local group where you can learn to speak in front of small or large groups in a relatively non-threatening setting.

To improve your written communications, first, ask others to provide a constructive critique of your writing. Co-workers, your spouse, and even your old English professors may be able to help. Second, read what others in your organization have written. Look at old memos, workpapers, and other documents which pertain to your job. Pay particular attention to how others explain their point of view, structure their arguments, and physically format their documents. Third, read the business press (see point 4 above for suggested publications). If nothing else, you will subconsciously improve your writing style, format, and technique.

6. Learn to work effectively in teams. When you were in school, you probably worked in teams with fellow classmates, particularly if you have a master's degree. You may have hated team projects then, but now teamwork is vital to your career because success in business requires a collaborative effort. Throughout your career, you will be evaluated on your personal accomplishments as well as on group accomplishments.
If you don't like team projects, the first thing you need to do is change your attitude. Negative attitudes produce substandard results. Next, view each team project as an opportunity to improve your technical abilities as well as your interpersonal skills. Finally, don't try to get lost in the group. Not doing anything is as bad as trying to do too much.

7. Become an "expert" at some task, idea, or business activity that will help you and your company grow. In at least one area, try to be the "go to" person upon whom others in your organization will rely. Maybe you can be the expert on macros for Excel, searching for data on the WWW, keeping abreast of telecommunications technology, finding low-price suppliers, the budgeting process, or your own computerized accounting package. The possibilities are almost endless and the choice is yours.

Ideally, you should pick an area in which you already have some knowledge, find interesting, and can relate to your desired career path. Depending on the size of your business and your interests, your chosen area of expertise may be narrow or broad and it may take you either a short or long time to become proficient.
To identify a good expertise area, ask yourself whether you have a competitive advantage at something. If so, exploit your advantage. Alternatively, once you have been on the job for a while, try to identify business activities which could use some specialized expertise. Becoming an expert on something can be a relatively long-term project. Start thinking about it now.

8. Finally, and most important, START NOW. Inertia has killed many great ideas and innovative programs. At some point, you have to stop thinking about it, stop talking about it, and just do it. How? Here are some ideas.
Don't jump in and try to do everything all at once. You will get discouraged and give up. Every month or so, choose one of the above pointers and put it into action. Get accustomed to one topic before you jump into another.

Set aside time in your schedule. We all have a million things to do and it seems as though we never have enough time to do everything. You have to make time for learning or it will not happen. Maybe you need to set aside an hour every evening devoted to reading and thinking, or maybe each Saturday morning. Whatever you choose, specifically plan for learning time and execute your plan. Don't ignore your other commitments, but don't use them as an excuse either.

Set short-term and long-term goals. Where do you want to be in a year or two or three? What do you want to accomplish in the next month or two? Map out a plan, follow it, and update it on a regular basis.
Don't put it off. Business and technology are changing far too fast to wait a year or two to get started. It is very easy to say, "I'll do that later." In today's environment, when later comes, it's too late.
Do what works for you. Take these ideas, refine them, add some of your own, and put together a plan that you can accomplish.

This article has explained why you need to continually re-tool your knowledge base; it has provided some hints and ideas to help you keep learning throughout your career. In business, the pace of change is accelerating. The future is never clear and is almost always uncertain. What is clear is that the way accounting and business operate will be different, maybe radically different, in five or ten or twenty years. If you continue to learn throughout your career, you will be a more valuable employee and you will be ready for the future, whatever it brings.

Frederick Niswander is an assistant professor of accounting at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina.

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