Some notes from our first workshops with the firms

In Structure by Lee Bryant0 Comments

We ran some very interesting roundtable discussions recently with employees and partners from major firms, and some great themes and questions are emerging, plus we got some great input and feedback relating to the future firms framework we are building.

initial findings_future firms.001

Here are some of the questions we have noted down from the sessions so far. If you were there and we missed anything important, please let us know.

Legal, regulations & policies

  • Technology might get easier and easier. But understanding the regulations and legal framework will not. So, it is difficult to see how everything can become automated. Regulation, lagging current practice, will be the biggest constraint on innovation in the future firm.

Behaviour 

  • Firms need to be able to assemble teams quicker and combine teams of different strengths. In a near future, firms will need people with more digital skills.
  • The questions that auditors ask will need to change. A continuing struggle is clients’ lack of interest. A key challenge with self-service platforms is to ensure that clients use them correctly. But, also that firms cannot take on the same risk with new delivery methods. if audit and assurance are to use technology to become more forensic, clients must also be more pro-active and share risk and accountability with the firms.
  • More networked structures would allow collaboration between experts in different parts of the business. But breaking down silos is difficult as long as everyone is highly specialised.
  • Society’s trust in firms stems from a long history of the professions. This trust is potentially at risk if technology will do the bulk of the work. Who would trust technology? Will employees who might not all be certified accountants in the future still have the same professional standards and ethics? Can ethics be taught on the job? How can firms’ culture cultivate ethical behaviour?
  • The industry has been over-optimised, and consequently there is too much emphasis on process over people, both inside the firms as well as clients. How will technology and more fluid, human organisations change this?
  • The firm has a duty to the profession and the society. But what if all firms move towards advisory and drop their audit services?

Technology 

  • Future teams will need different skills sets, even with new tools available. For example, the future team might be a data scientist, client representative and auditor.
  • Technology might replace repetitive manual work, but can it also quality check the inputs?
  • More technology is inevitable, but foreseeing the impact is difficult. It seems likely that the scope of services will change as tasks are automated. Another alternative is that the delivery mechanisms are changed. Potentially, the final output might change completely.
  • Will firms own the technology or will they just use third-party platforms? Do they have the skills to develop their own platforms?
  • Too much communication via tools threatens to the remove face-to-face communication. For many employees face-to-face communication is how they learn best and develop relationships with colleagues.
  • FinTech startups and the Ubers of the world have managed to spin up businesses in just a few years. In theory, firms could make the same leaps with projects outside their existing structures and culture. For example, firms could spin-off start-ups that offer a collection of micro-services at the commoditised end of accounting.
  • Organisational structures and cultures are key barriers for firms to innovate the accounting practices. Firms themselves do not believe they can become hothouses for technology solutions. Rather, there is a belief  that innovation will come from companies such as Google. Firms might become just service providers in a world where technology companies commoditise the accounting practice. Could they sustain their business model and revenues in such a scenario.
  • There is a lot of talk about technology innovations e.g. predictive analytics, but it is questionable how advanced these solutions actually are today.

Structure

  • Firms will need networks of internal and external specialists to deliver services.  Firms must find new ways to quickly assemble teams of different experts. A key concern is how firms will vet third parties and not put the firm’s trust at risk.
  • The organisational structures materialise in the buildings that firms occupy. What happens when more people work from home or remote?
  • It is assumed that associates will work in multi-disciplinary networks. But it is still hard to imagine how the daily coordination will happen.
  • Teams have a tendency to guard their clients, which will be a barrier if firms are to become more flexible.
  • Associates will need new social skills to be efficient in networks (e.g. associates must quickly build trusted relationships).
  • The partner structure may not be suitable for the potential futures we are discussing.

Culture

  • The accounting practice should still be about humans making judgements, although technology might take over a lot of tasks.
  • Firms will need people who are more tech savvy, but, also people who can operate in the new environment of networked teams.
  • The majority of employees will not be chartered accountants by 2030. But include many design thinkers and strategy consultants.
  • Accountancies establish trust in financial numbers. However, trends suggest that firms will be asked to verify more than just numbers. For example, will firms be asked to audit charities’ non-financial results?
  • Firms’ organisational cultures have become much more informal. As new generations enter the workforce this trend will continue. An open question is how this will impact the behaviours in the firms. Will the culture become too relaxed? Will the younger staff accept the processes?

Selected Quotes

  • “Selling knowledge is dead”
  • “By 2030 we might not even think of ourselves as an accounting firm”

Join the conversation

Throughout the summer we will explore how future firms will differ from today. We are looking for employees and partners, who want to take part in the conversation. We can host a roundtable discussion at your firm or you can join one of the Accountancy Salons in July. Interested? Just email Martin Martinoff.