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
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
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
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
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.