Learning strategies to support ‘AccounTech’ innovation

Accounting

For several years I was an advisor to a private equity firm. Growth strategies were peppered with discussions about digital transformation that could neatly be referenced by adding “tech” to a shorthand description of the industry. EdTech. HealthTech. FinTech.

I never thought I’d see the day when AccounTech would be a thing.

It’s a thing. Take a look at the vendor list of any major accounting or finance conference, and you’ll see it’s dominated by technology companies focused on the accounting profession. Well-financed new players have rapidly entered the market, promising to take on legacy behemoths and disrupt the status quo.

Having a chief innovation officer is no longer limited to a handful of deep-pocketed firms. Innovation is top of mind, but once you get past the whiz-bang of the new technology, hard decisions have to be made about how much a firm is willing to invest and how — exactly — the innovation will create real economic benefit.

Business leaders recognize that training should be a part of the innovation process. But to be truly effective, that training must be strategic and designed specifically to meet the goals of adoption. Training related to innovation is not about CPE; it’s about improving the return on the technology investment.

Maximizing the return on innovation

An investment in new technology makes sense only if it addresses a pain point or allows an organization to take advantage of a promising business opportunity. The tangible economic benefit from the innovation must exceed the cost; otherwise the organization wouldn’t make the investment.

To maximize the return from a new technology, the organization should seek to accelerate the pace of adoption across a critical mass of users who broadly deploy the technology.

Done strategically, learning can accelerate the adoption process across a broader audience for an optimized number of use cases. Thoughtfully planned and well-executed learning strategies improve the ROI of innovation.

What research tells us about innovation

Two of the most common assumptions about the adoption of innovation are:

  • If the new way of doing things is clearly superior to the old way, people will make the change.
  • If change is mandated by the organization, it will be adopted.

Decades of research show those two assumptions to be false, that many superior innovations are never widely adopted and that innovation pushed down from the top, though adopted on the surface, may in fact be met with subtle resistance for many years after the new technology was required, severely limiting its benefit.
To increase their chances for success, those responsible for innovation should have a working knowledge of the fundamental principles of innovation adoption. And learning leaders must build their strategies around those same principles.

Five stages to adoption for the individual user

An individual’s decision to try something new is a risk management calculation. People come to learn about the new technology — whether they realize it or not — with the intention of mitigating their perceived risk of adoption and whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks. The path to adoption is a sequential process that consists of five steps:

  • Knowledge: The individual is exposed to the innovation and gains a basic understanding of how it works.
  • Persuasion: They form an opinion (favorable or unfavorable) about the innovation.
  • Decision: They choose to adopt or reject the innovation.
  • Implementation: They put the new idea into use.
  • Confirmation: The individual receives feedback on the implementation that either reinforces their decision or contradicts that decision and causes them to reverse it.

The problem with most learning strategies is that they overload on knowledge phase and stop there. A more effective strategy is to design the learning in a way that moves users more quickly through the innovation process by supporting the distinct user needs at each phase.

Innovation adoption for the organization

Across an organization, adoption follows a bell shaped curve (see below), which can be segmented into five tranches:

  • Innovators launch the innovation into the organization. They are venturesome and comfortable with uncertainty and risk.
  • Early adopters have the highest degree of opinion leadership. They decrease the organizational uncertainty by adopting innovation and communicating their experience to others, which is critical to driving adoption.
  • The early majority allow the early adopters’ innovation with “deliberate willingness.” The adoption period for this group is longer than innovators and early adopters.
  • The late majority view innovations with caution and skepticism. Their adoption is usually driven by peer pressure and the weight of system norms.
  • Laggards are suspicious of innovations and of change agents. They tend to interact primarily with those who share the same opinions and values.

Each tranche has a different tolerance for risk, ambiguity and change, and the organization’s learning programs must be built with these differences in mind. Again, the end goal is speed of adoption: You want to shorten the time it takes for the majority of the population to adopt the innovation.

Research shows that the experiences of the earlier adopter can have a big impact on the later adopters. Designed well, a learning program can serve as an effective communication channel between the earlier and later adopters, helping to shorten the overall time frame for organization-wide adoption.

Moving beyond functional training

When an organization adopts a new technology, the training usually focuses on the features and functionality of the product. The underlying assumption seems to be that once people know how to work the new technology, they will understand its benefits and begin to use it on the job.

Often, actual outcomes fail to meet these expectations. A small percentage of users (the “innovators”) embrace the new technology, play with it, and figure out ways to use it in their jobs. When they encounter a roadblock (e.g., the client can’t get the information in a usable format), they don’t get frustrated, they find resources on the internet or experiment until they find the answer.

Over time, this tranche becomes the firm’s super-users. The others find a few reasonably easy tasks they can perform without too much trouble, and they don’t stray beyond that. On the surface, the innovation has been adopted, but because the use case for the vast majority of users is so narrow, ROI will fall well short of expectations.

Product training is not enough to drive adoption. Remember that to adopt an innovation, the individual must be persuaded that the benefits of adoption far outweigh the risks. For the naturally risk-averse (about 85% in any organization) merely knowing how the innovation works is not persuasive. They need more than product training.

Here are the learning strategies we find most effective at accelerating adoption across more use cases and a broader audience:

  • Have a vision for the end state.
  • Reduce the product training.
  • Involve the super-users in training.
  • Solve problems.
  • Let them explore the new technology.

Vision

Start with a clear vision of how you want the innovation to change how users perform their assigned tasks. Organizations overlook this critical first step far too often, which slows the rate of adoption, especially those most hesitant to give up the status quo.

If you expect the new technology to significantly change business processes, define those new processes before you put people in the classroom. Use your training to teach the new, firm-wide practice, not to have class members develop their own.

Consider how you want the innovation to be adopted by the organization as a whole. What level of proficiency is required of each role within the organization?

Tailor the vendor training

The vendor will most likely offer generic training that focuses on the features and functionality of their product plus opportunities to practice. This training is a good starting point that you should then modify to be specific to your circumstances. Remember that your users are assessing the cost benefit of adopting the new technology, which means they want to know how the change will affect them.

Start with the use cases that are most likely to change as a result of the innovation and build your training around case studies that showcase not only the innovation but help illustrate the benefits of change. The first time you travel to a new destination it seems to take a long time; once you get used to it, getting there seems much easier and faster. That should be the goal of your classroom training. It’s the user’s first trip with a new technology so that when they get to the job, it feels like they’ve been down that exact same road before.

Reduce the product training

Formal classroom learning experiences should be built around use case scenarios. Reduce the product training to the essentials necessary to successfully navigate those scenarios. Your objective is to have everyone master (or come close to mastering) just a few of the most important capabilities of the product and how they can apply it to solve typical job requirements. This strategy will lead to much better outcomes than one whose objective is to introduce users to all of the product features.

What about the features that you don’t teach that some of the users may need? If formal training is required, create some kind of on-demand, self-study option. In some cases, formal training may not even be required. Online user forums or other structured methods for creating and sharing information can be effective for addressing those scenarios that arise infrequently.

Involve your champions

In-house champions should blend a working knowledge of the product with a deep understanding of the users’ job requirements. This combination of skills makes them uniquely qualified to shape the use cases at the heart of the training.

Just as importantly, champions must be involved in delivering the training. Persuasion is a critical step in the adoption process, and the best way for users to become persuaded is for them to hear directly from their peers. Your champions should come from the early adopter group. These are not the folks who try new things just because they like trying new things. Early adopters are more pragmatic, willing to embrace change but only if its benefits are clear.

It’s that pragmatism that gives them the credibility to shape the opinion of others. Leverage that credibility by having them facilitate important parts of the training. This approach will help you shape the opinion of the larger group and accelerate the pace of adoption across the organization.

Solve problems

The traditional way of training begins and ends with teaching new users how to operate the new technology.

There are two problems with this approach:

  • Most people have difficulty making the connection between how the tool works and how to use the tool to do something productive.
  • If users do figure out how to apply the tool in practice, the organization will end up with multiple approaches to the same application. In the long run this inconsistency will lead to inefficiency.

Left to their own devices, most people will use the new technology to simply automate existing processes, which is suboptimal for technologies whose greatest value is realized only when the organization re-engineers its way of doing business.
A more effective approach is to start with a clear understanding of the business problem you plan to solve and the process you will use to deploy the technology in practice. Once defined, work backwards from there. What features and functionality must the users master in order to use the technology to solve the identified problem? Those are the only features you should be teaching to the masses. All other features individuals can learn on an as-needed basis.

Let them explore

Most IT training tries to do too much, leaving the learners overwhelmed by all the information thrown at them. The more effective approach is to begin with the assumption that training cannot teach everything and that the key to effective technology training is selectivity.

Balance the “fill them with knowledge” approach with plenty of opportunities for users to play with and explore the new technology. Use the instructor as a hands-on guide to help users navigate the software on their own. There are many advantages to this approach, including:

  • It will de-mystify the new technology. Many new users are intimidated and afraid that somehow they might break the system. It will help them to know they can’t and that there is very little they can do that can’t be undone should problems arise. If they do get stuck or make a mistake, they do so in a safe environment with an expert on hand to help them figure it out.
  • Develop their “figure it out” skills. On the job, situations will undoubtedly arise that will require users to figure out a solution. One of the main objectives of the formal training should be to introduce users to self-service the resources they can call on to help them “figure out” how to solve problems. Consider adding common problems to your training and then requiring them to access and use the organization’s self-help resources.

Get more from your training

The goal of innovation should be to maximize the economic benefit to the organization. The greater the clarity about how exactly that value is to be achieved, the greater the chance for success.

Learning should be part of the resources the organization brings to bear in maximizing the value from adopting the innovation. To gain a much desired seat at the strategic table, learning leaders must create curriculums that consider all aspects of the innovation adoption cycle.

We live in a time of hyperinnovation, fueled by advances in technology and huge amounts of investment capital. Organizations that find ways to maximize the benefits of adopting these new technologies will quickly outpace their competition.

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