The Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the Association) is a nonprofit organization serving finance and accounting professionals. A cornerstone of its mission is the prestigious Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation, which distinguishes those who have achieved advanced proficiency in finance, accounting, operations, strategy, and business management. To earn the designation, candidates must prepare for and pass rigorous exams. More than 150,000 accounting and finance professionals have earned the CGMA designation worldwide, making it the most widely held management accounting designation in the world.
As in other fields, the role of finance and accounting is rapidly changing, along with the competencies that senior executives now require of the finance function within the organization. Finance is increasingly being called upon to participate in strategic planning, risk management decisions, and problem solving. A key part of the Association’s mission is to ensure that its educational offerings and the value of the CGMA designation keep pace with these changing demands. The Association recognized that in order to live up to its mission, it needed to create new, more flexible, and more responsive educational pathways for CGMA candidates and their continuing education.
Historically, the two membership bodies that formed the Association, AICPA (American Institute of Certified Public Accountants) and CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), prepared candidates for the CGMA exam through independent tutors, trainers, and test centers, a lengthy and time-consuming process for candidates. The Association’s vision was to create a new, integrated digital experience that would provide the education and assessment needed to satisfy two sets of stakeholders:
- Finance and accounting professionals working toward the CGMA designation
- CFOs, VPs of finance, controllers, and other C-level leaders wanting to increase their staff’s proficiency in strategic planning and problem solving throughout their organizations
Involvement in strategic planning, business partnering, and problem solving is relatively new to the accounting profession, which once focused primarily on the mechanics of finance and accounting. The new CGMA Finance Leadership Program needed to develop not only the traditional competencies but an expanded set of new competencies.
To define them, the Association reached out to employers, young professionals, academics, and students and asked them to describe their expectations of today’s finance and accounting professionals. Their enthusiastic feedback identified the competencies that have since become the backbone of the new program, leading to sweeping changes in the CGMA Finance Leadership Program syllabus design, which is now based on five main pillars:
- Business skills, including strategic planning and risk management
- People skills
- Leadership skills
- Technical skills, with an emphasis on ethics, integrity, and professionalism
- Digital strategy
However, no two organizations have exactly the same expectations of their finance and accounting professionals. While the participating organizations agree on a set of competencies, individual companies prioritize them differently, based on their immediate needs.
These changes meant that the CGMA Finance Leadership Program would need to be a customizable learning journey rather than a single linear path through the content. Customization would allow employers to designate their prioritized competencies and adapt the learning to the organizational needs. To that end, the Association asked Extension Engine to build a Custom Learning Experience with a configurable platform that would support employer priorities and individualized learning journeys. Extension Engine also provided significant input on program strategy, user experience, and instructional design.
Some defining factors contributed to shaping course design, not least being its constituents. A key attribute of course participants is diversity. Candidates seeking the CGMA designation range from millennials to established professionals who have been working in the field for years or even decades. Preexisting mastery of the required competencies varies greatly, from recent graduates to old pros. Some candidates need to review and reinforce the basics; others are more than ready to take on strategic planning, problem solving, and risk management. Clearly, the learning experience can not be “one size fits all.”
Another consideration is time to efficacy. While CGMA candidates are highly motivated, they are also pressed for time, and they have little desire to spend weeks or months relearning material they have already mastered. By the same token, their employers are eager to put the new competencies to work as quickly as possible.
The Association needed to find a way to ensure that no one spent time spinning their wheels but that instead candidates were efficiently directed to the most appropriate learning materials for their individual level of mastery and learning speed. This required a level of learner centricity rarely found in online learning.
To accomplish this ambitious mission, the Association adopted three tactics: 1) personalized learning, 2) a learn-by-doing pedagogy with immediate practice and feedback to develop maximum proficiency in the minimum amount of time, and 3) a completely customized platform to guide the user through an intuitive, efficient, and learner-centric experience.
The dashboard presents the learner’s progress through the course and also toward a specific completion date. The learner can choose a desired completion date against which to gauge their progress or have the platform calculate the probable completion date based on their rate of progress.
Each competency includes a number of skill sets that are introduced through learning scenarios.
Learners can easily monitor their progress in mastering the skill sets contained within each competency. All skill sets must be completed to do the business simulation for that competency.
Knowledge checks provide feedback to both learners and the platform, which tracks where review and remediation might be needed.
The first tactic, personalized learning, provides a pathway through the material based on the learner’s prior knowledge and learning speed (in addition to their employer’s priorities). A participant can enter the CGMA Finance Leadership Program at one of three predefined levels; the right level for them is based on their past work and educational experience. Once they engage with the learning, the learning management system (LMS) determines their path through each level based on the mastery they demonstrate as they complete the skill sets within each competency. A personalized dashboard allows each learner to set their desired pace for the learning journey and receive feedback from the system on their progress toward the end goal of being prepared to take the CGMA case study exam. This is especially important given that many are busy, working professionals.
The second tactic, a learn-by-doing pedagogy, begins by presenting new ideas and concepts to learners, then immediately challenges them to apply the new knowledge within real-world situations. Each competency contains multiple skill sets, which are introduced with scenario-based foundational material. Once the learner completes all skill sets in a competency, a business simulation reinforces their learning. As the program progresses, the simulations become more complex in order to develop the application and integration of skills within the competency areas, with the ultimate goal of mastering the advanced business tasks they will face in the case study exam. This immediate application of new information and focus on knowledge integration increases both retention and proficiency. During this process, participants learn as much from their mistakes as from their successes. The LMS helps students determine which areas they need to focus on for mastery and which areas need remediation when skills are lagging. The final step of the process is to prepare for the CGMA exam by engaging in sample and mock exams featuring simulation business tasks that integrate across all competency areas.
The third tactic is a customized platform that provides a uniquely responsive and interactive user experience, examples of which include:
- A sophisticated dashboard graphically displays all of the competencies in a clean user interface and shows the learner where they stand and what is coming up.
- The dashboard indicates what a user has completed and makes recommendations for the next competency.
- Within a competency, the learner masters a number of skill sets, then must complete a business simulation to complete the competency. Because the end goal is the CGMA certification, the dashboard displays the candidate’s progress relative to their chosen exam date, indicating what must yet be accomplished to be fully prepared by that target date.
- Alternatively, the learner can indicate how much time they can put into doing the course on a weekly or monthly basis and the platform will calculate the date they should be ready to take the exam.
- The platform supports a variety of learning assets, including video, scenario-based learning, knowledge checks, interactive activities, and case-based assessments.
The CGMA Finance Leadership Program is currently serving more than 500 students from 60-plus employers. Several dozen candidates have already successfully graduated and obtained their CGMA designations. The feedback from both employers and individuals who undertook learning on their own has been overwhelmingly positive. And because the learning experience is custom, the Association continues to make changes and improvements as the product matures and in alignment with functionality releases planned on the product road map.
Bill leads our nonprofits practice and talks to nonprofit leaders every day. Bill has more than 15 years of experience working with learning organizations in the U.S. and globally. He was an adjunct instructor in marketing, as well as founder and past board chairman of a private K–8 school. He holds an MBA from Babson’s F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business.