What’s Missing in Controller Education?

Often, it's the teacher, as online learning takes over. We report on one of the last bastions of classroom training in this area, and examine its advantages.

The subject was Bear Stearns. The audience was controllers and aspiring controllers.

Out by Chicago’s O’Hare Airport at the American Management Association Center, a dozen of them — from lines of business including healthcare, retailing, banking, and the garment industry — were engaged with veteran instructor Robert Rector in a discussion about the investment banking firm’s problems, and what controllers could learn from them.

Over five modules in the three-day training, the class delved into how to apply information in a range of areas, from reporting to IT to time management to leadership. On numerous occasions, Bear Stearns came up. And class questions, along with Rector’s answers, helped explain how the firm got in so much trouble: “They went into a particular product line, and it became too big a part of their portfolio,” says the teacher. “The market looked good at the time, but it didn’t have sustainability.”

The course, called “The Controller’s Job in Today’s Environment,” costs $1,895 for members of the American Management Association, which teaches it more than a half-dozen times a year as part of its busy instruction schedule. Overall, AMA offers more than 170 open-enrollment seminars in 20 subject areas, with finance and accounting representing a major slice. Last year, the AMA registered more than 43,000 participants in 3,000 separate sessions, according to John Canniffe, portfolio manager for AMA’s finance and accounting seminars.

Inflection and Nuance

Rector is one of about eight instructors teaching this course, along with “Advanced Strategies for Controllers” and other finance-oriented seminars. He has strong views about finance training, and one is that real, live classroom participation is too often giving way to online learning.

Rector laments that online finance training often is geared to providing the minimum information necessary to give a controller — or other finance executive — the basic Continuing Professional Education (CPE) credits or Continuing Education Units (CEUs) needed to remain compliant under corporate standards.

Online education certainly has a role in transferring basic information — especially in an environment when taking three days off to travel to a seminar seems luxurious, compared to sitting at one’s office computer and getting the “same” information.

But many companies don’t consider what qualities can be lost when a course is delivered online, says Rector. “When you’re in an interactive class with a human being as your instructor, you get the inflection; you can understand the nuance,” he says. “And the focus in the subject matter can be directed to the group.”

The Eggs in Bear’s Basket

That’s what Rector was doing in his recent Chicago “Today’s Environment” session, with a rapt audience of finance executives focused on dialogues that seemed ripped from the headlines.

In leading classes, he tries to localize the discussion to the group in attendance, as well as to tie the instruction to what’s going on in the news. When he’s in Seattle, with so much interest in aerospace, for instance, he often cites aviation issues. One such topic often is how manufacturers and airline customers — and their controllers — need to consider seating capacity, the mix of business travelers and tourists, and amenities on board.

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