Accounting for Questions

On November 17, 2016, FMI Edmonton hosted: CPAs and the Public Service.  Now that CPA Alberta is almost a toddler (16+ months old at time of writing), it is time to ask the question: How Can CPA Alberta help the members who work in the public service?

The problem though is how do you get 118 attendees to agree on which questions are most important?  Traditionally you could open up the floor to questions but then the most brave and most opinionated tend to dominate.  You could ask the presenters to provide an overview, and this was done in the first part of the session, but this also eliminates the audience participation.  The (facilitation) answer: Questions a la Carte!

Got Questions?

The origin for Question a la Carte was the September 2016 Edmonton-FMI Conference on Innovation, where I experimented with ‘Innovation Bingo‘.  This facilitation activity promoted audience attention and participation.  With Questions a la carte, my intention was to take it to the next level.

How It Worked

The morning was reasonably interactive; the audience voted on and select the most pressing questions of interest to the conference attendees by following instructions provided in the Annex.  The questions were thematically broken into chronological categories, in this case a CPA’s life journey starting with their training, work, professional development and ending with life after a career (see the table below).

How: Question Solicitation

Additional questions, question removal or edits were solicited but other than the ones I dreamed up or were contributed by CPA Alberta (thanks Larry!), none were forthcoming. Notwithstanding these results, non-accountants were encouraged to contribute questions to challenge the CPAs at the conference with hard-hitting questions to make the attendees squirm a little bit (in a nice and respectful squirming sort of way of course).

How: Instructions and Reinforcement

The questions were distributed in the pre-conference notes as well as given to each attendees in hard copy along with six small dots.  Additional table dots were distributed for a table to decide together how to apply.

Instructions were provided to the audience on at least six different occasions (a 3 minute overview at the beginning of the conference, reinforced by the key-note speaker and then multiple times by the moderator and presenters).

How: Reinforcement and Reward

Encouraging attendees to vote was accomplished by having their hardcopy stamped after applying their dots.  A stamped page not only made the eligible for door prizes (material reinforcement) by also provided an at-table reinforcement of ‘did you get your page stamped?’ (social or group cohesion reinforcement).

How: Presenter Privilege

Presenters and panelist were given the privilege to identify questions of greatest interest to them.  A colour name tag essentially allowed them to jump the queue and get their question answered irrespective of the group interest in it.

How: Questions and Their Categorization

Question package provided to attendees: 2016-11-17-questions.

Section Description Comments/Notes
Starters Questions relating to how to become or train the next generation of CPAs.  Training CPAs is a larger area of interest post merger.
Salad (Days) Personal; The role an accounting designation has had and/or how the merger will change this. We did not explore these enough.
Entree Strategy and Governance; How can CPAs make better decisions to guide our organizations. This was a core area for the conference.
Entree Standards; Questions relating to how accounting standards guide, serve and constrain us as CPAs. Accounting standards is central to the accounting function
The Kitchen Systems and Process; How CPA Alberta and the CPA community can deliver public services faster and better. Limited number of questions were provided and an area of expansion in the future.
New Recipes Keeping Up; Professional Development (PD) and continuous learning as a CPA. PD is always an area of interest for CPAs.
Digestifs Life after the Public Service; Alumni related questions.  This may be due to retirement or departure from the public service organization. A subject area worth of additional exploration, see November 14, 2014 FMI Conference notes.
Dessert Just for Fun; Don’t waste your dots on these question, but see if you can answer them nevertheless.

What Worked and What to Work On?

What: Response Rate

Worked: Generally the Questions a la Carte worked very well.  Of the approximately 600 dots distributed (5 per person), 365 were applied (for a response rate of more than 50%). Most of the attendees understood what was requested as there were very few process questions on what to do or why we are doing it.

Analysis and Ranking of Voted Questions: 2016-11-17-questions_rank.

What: Questions Analysis

Of the 30 questions asked, the average number of votes for each was 12 with a median of 7 votes.   The top question three questions each received approximately 10% of the total votes and each were from distinct categories or themes.  In other words there was relatively wide-spread interest in most of the questions nor did the presenter-privilege seem to indicate a selection bias amongst the audience.

As a result, I would suggest with some improvements, the Question a la Carte method can be a statistically viable method of measuring small group opinion and preferences for a specific issue.

What: Just for Fun and Table Dots

The intent of the Just for Fun questions was to provide an ice breaker.  Because the conference did not focus on these questions this was a missed opportunity. Similar with the Table Dots, the conference did not sufficiently focus on the use of these dots and as a result missed an opportunity for to increase group participation and an improved sense of the ‘event’.

What: Change:

  1. Improved Statistical Analysis: I would record the participation rate more precisely, for example by providing a numbered mail label applied to the pages.  In addition, I would do a better job of estimating acknowledged non-responsive records (e.g. I did not vote nor did the key-note speaker).  Finally, I would place the posters in an area with more physical space as the back wall proved to be intimate but very crowded (and perhaps a bit of a safety concern).
  2. Virtual Dots: Rather than physical dots, digital dots or an online response could have been developed.  My inclination is not to do this as the tactile reinforcement outweighs the minor improvements in administrative processing.  However, if the group was two or three times the size (e.g. an audience of say 300+) then more automated data gathering would make sense
  3. Just for Fun: I will likely drop this element or else make it a stronger part of the key-note speakers ice breaker activities.
  4. Table Dots: I will highlight this more strongly next time including giving specific time to the tables to come to a consensus and have the moderator reinforce group behaviour.
  5. Physical Space: I will provide at least a 3 metre pathway around the sheets and perhaps also use larger dots to increase the visible impact.  This may include having the dots in the meal area and then making an ‘ceremony’ of carrying it in so as to increase the group ownership and affiliation with the voting process.

A Blog Annex – How to Play Questions a la carte

Going out to eat helps to build bridges and create a sense of community in a group.  In addition to a good breakfast, you are invited to participate in ‘CPA Questions a la Carte’. How does it work, simple – you get to pick the questions that our panel will consider.  To do this, you will have been given some personal dots. Simply place one or more dots next to a question you would like addressed.  Don’t see a question, no problem, order it online via (see page 8 for instructions).  In addition to personal dots, each table will receive group dots.  Prior to the end of the mid-morning break, discuss at your table how best to divide these up amongst the questions.  For example, you could have one person stick all of the table-dots on their card or you could divide them up evenly at your table.

To make sure the kitchen (e.g. the panel) gets your order, go to the back of the conference room.  There a master menu will tally up the various dot-votes.  A CPA server will stamp your order, with this stamp you are now eligible for some great door prizes at the end of the session.