Experience—either doing something or learning from someone who already did—is a key component of education. Abstract concepts and ideas are wonderful, but unless they’re backed up with demonstration and application, then they’re just so many words. At Ernst & Young University – Tax, which develops the firm’s approximately 5,000 tax professionals, experience is built into every element of education, said Rick Western, national director of the learning organization.
“We have a three-pronged approach to learning and development,” he said. “The first prong is formal learning, which you get in the classroom or through Web-based learning programs. The second is experience—that’s the actual experiences you get serving clients or working on specific projects to give you the knowledge you need to grow and develop as a professional. The third is apprenticeship. That is when you take a large organization like ours, which is blessed with many senior folks with years and years of experience, and ensure those senior folks take that extra time to pass their knowledge down to the individuals with less experience in order to show them the tools of the trade. We wrap all three of those in a triad of learning and development.”
In the formal learning facet, learning is delivered through traditional means such as classroom as well as through Web-based courses. The online offerings usually complement the classroom, serving as a preparation device. These are generally organized into four-hour modules that individuals can register for any time they like, Western said. “It’s interactive. They’re answering questions online and depending on their answers, they’ll get additional questions. They’ll be notified if their answers are correct or incorrect. Obviously, if they’re incorrect then they know they need to dig a little deeper to make sure they understand the subject matter better.
“One of the reasons we use the technologically enhanced way is that it allows people to take their own advanced prep when it’s convenient for them,” he added. “The flexibility is terrific. The other thing is it allows us to track individuals’ completion of their advanced prep, because it is required. We really expect them to take that prior to attending a course. If they don’t take it, then we will de-register you from the course. There’s a real element of commitment here, and the Web-based technology allows us to track and measure it.”
Although the classroom modality might be traditional, at Ernst & Young University – Tax the interactions therein are anything but. Most of the students are very experienced and have a sophisticated understanding of tax law, which they can share with their colleagues. “It’s more of a 360-type learning event, because I find I learn as much from my peers as I do from the instructors themselves,” Western said. “What that does is creates an even more alive learning event, because they’re sitting in the classroom with other professionals who have different experiences than ours, and they share those with each other. We sort of make that complex subject matter come to life that way.”
Ernst & Young University – Tax’s apprenticeship program also provides an opportunity to learn from the experiences of others, namely the organization’s senior personnel. “The apprenticeship program makes sure that they’re on a team with very seasoned professionals who can help them from the experiences that they’ve garnered along the way,” Western explained.
Perhaps the most direct way in which Western and his team connect employees with meaningful experiences, though, is through mandated amounts of exposure to different kinds of tax law. “We actually have very specific goals for our younger folks at the staff and the senior level in their first five years with the firm. We actually have a mandate for most of them to get a certain number of hours of experience in different areas of tax law. We monitor the experience they’re getting and produce a report every month for not only the individual, but also for their counselor, so they can see the progress they’re making. We want them to get at least 600 hours of experience in at least four different areas of the tax law.”
This experiential component of education is crucial, because it ensures that knowledge will be passed down from one generation of leadership to another, Western said. “We want to create an environment that grows today’s tax professionals into tomorrow’s tax leaders. We really want everybody to have the opportunity to become a leader in the profession in the future.”
–Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org