Payroll association develops innovative webinar series

While arranging the photo shoot and interview for this month’s cover story on Innovation Award winners, the Canadian Payroll Association, CPA’s vice-president, compliance programs and services, Steven Van Alstine, made a point of mentioning the great views. So, when photographer Sandra Strangemore and I arrived for the shoot, we were prepared to be impressed.

From the south-facing windows of their sixteenth floor Bloor Street office, Canadian Payroll Association staffers get a great view of the whole Toronto skyline; from the north windows, they can work while overlooking the Rosedale Valley. If they raise their eyes just a bit, they can watch the sprawling city as it rises towards Sheppard, Finch and, on a very clear day, maybe Steeles and beyond.

We didn’t end up doing the photo shoot in front of the windows, yet as the interview with Van Alstine progressed, those wide vistas seemed an apt metaphor for an association that is forward-thinking and well set-up to meet the needs of its nationwide membership.

Over the years, the 31-year-old association has developed a number of services and programs for its 3,000+ members. One of the more unique services is its Payroll InfoLine, a member-only hotline that allows those with questions to call up and be connected to one of the CPA’s payroll consultants. Members can also access the consultants via email. If the consultants can’t answer the question right away, they’ll do some research and call the member back.

One of the added advantages of the InfoLine for the CPA is that it provides almost immediate feedback from members about how the association is doing in meeting their needs. Just as important, it lets the association confirm the hot questions in payroll, and it also allows members to indicate what other products or services they want.

Although the association offers over 350 seminars a year, Van Alstine says, “Many of our members are  located in smaller areas and we can’t easily offer courses close by.” From InfoLine and other input, association staff felt there was a gap in their offerings.

“Along with the need to reach those in smaller markets, members were indicating an interest in some hot topics that wouldn’t necessarily fill a full, or even a half-day session,” he notes. Members also seemed open to new content-delivery models.

The result was the new CPA webinar series, originally launched in 2004, designed not to replace in-person seminars, but to fill the identified gaps. Van Alstine and his department members identified hot topics that lend themselves well to 90-minutes or two-hour sessions – the inaugural topic was on issues relating to privacy and payroll.

“This subject paired a new technology with a topic of considerable interest to the payroll community,” Van Alstine notes.

On his Innovation Award nomination form, Van Alstine wrote: “The webinar technology incorporated a PowerPoint presentation with voice-over capability and the ability to submit live questions and participate in live polling. It also had the ability to be archived for participants to access later or for new people to have access to the information.”

There were over 500 attendees for that first session, reaching all areas of Canada and even into the U.S. Van Alstine says that the technology enabled broader reach and the ability for people to participate right at their desks.

“In fact, some payroll departments went into a boardroom and participated by having the web seminar cast onto a screen for the entire department,” he says.

There were close to 200 questions submitted related to that first topic. According to Van Alstine, CPA’s technology partner, Startcast, indicated that they had not seen a web seminar that had garnered so much participation in terms of the submission of questions. “This resulted in the engagement of our subject matter expert to work with the CPA to produce a book for sale to the membership,” Van Alstine says. That book has now been revised with the additions of extra privacy questions and answers from further webinars and hotline calls.

Since that first webinar, the CPA has offered a host of topics in English and French, and commonly enables 200-300 people to participate in topics of interest to the payroll community. “And, we still get seminars that attract 500-600 participants,” Van Alstine says.

The additional value added is significant for the association as it enables it to offer more effective  programming for members. Over the last few years, the association has offered in excess of 30 web seminars; in 2007, alone, it presented 12 webinars.

“The CPA and members have benefited from the CPA’s Web seminar series,” Van Alstine concludes. “And have lived the CPA’s mission of ‘Payroll Leadership through Advocacy and Education’ in doing so.”