There is a build up of discussions within the profession that address the future of the accountancy firms, which particularly point to various aspects of technology, services or regulation in isolation. Instead, what we decided to do is to open up a multi-dimensional perspective and to facilitate a more in-depth dialogue that draws attention to the shared challenges that firms have. We created a framework that could visualise this multidimensionality, and provide new concepts that aim to enrich the conversation by looking at elements in a more systemic way.
With more than 147,000 members worldwide and thousands of accounting firms, ICAEW is committed to creating a world of strong economies. With this project, we are exploring the ecosystem of the profession. We recognise that firms are already innovating and diversifying their thinking through their own strategies. However, we see this collaboration project as a powerful way of further helping firms reimagine themselves by bringing the discussion to a higher level that considers the firm as part of a larger community of a professional ecosystem.
We see this as a timely and valuable initiative because of the interest and contributions we have received from more than twenty firms that collaborated to discuss these issues. Contrary to conventional preconceptions, participants in our project showed vulnerability and openness and were willing to share ideas and come together to reimagine the profession.
This toolkit is part of a broader AuditFutures initiative on the future of the professional services firms and we invite you to join us.
Most attempts to predict the future begin with conclusions already in mind, assuming that the future will all be about technology, culture, or new ways of delivering services. But in a profession that spans a multitude of sole traders and small firms to 200,000 people behemoths, there is probably no single, simple answer to what the future firm will look like. Since accounting firms are not the only sector being disrupted and changed by digitisation, there are lessons to be learned elsewhere in various aspects of a firm’s structure, culture and practice.
Some, such as Richard and Daniel Susskind, believe the professions will slowly be automated and commoditised before they fade away to be replaced by intelligent systems, peer-to-peer platforms and other sources of advice and analysis. Others believe the professions will continue, but working in tandem with automation and machines, implying that there will be fewer professionals who focus on high value-added activities that firms and the people who make them up will continue to need.
Regardless of the eventual future of the profession and practice overall, what do all these changes mean for accounting firms themselves? How will they need to adapt, and how can they avoid being dragged into commodity markets where computers have the advantage? How will the future firm differ from what we see today? These were the kinds of question we had in mind when initiating this project.
The American philosopher Robert Pirsig famously said that if a factory is torn down, but the rationality and systemic patterns which produced it are left standing, they will simply build another similar factory. With our research, we are putting the value on unpacking and understanding the complexity of firms. Professional services firms have evolved as complex systems to aggregate analytical power and develop a platform to extend their value proposition both internally and externally, and to develop compelling brands and service delivery models that clients trust. While this has contributed to their historical resilience, it is unlikely that they will continue with the current model or way of working if it does not reflect on external challenges or add sufficient value to the work of individual professionals.
The goal of this project was to come up with a multi-dimensional framework to describe the dimensions of a firm that we think will be subject to greatest change, and then to discuss these elements with professionals to see which they are most interested in, concerned about and also have a sense of how they might change. By gathering ideas and inputs into the individual dimensions, we validated the framework as a way of having conversations about change. We are making all research and insights available to firms to adapt and use in a way that makes sense to their particular culture and view of the future.
We invite you to explore the framework and engage your firm in building a multi-dimensional narrative about the future.
With this project, we are exploring the value of using a multi-dimensional framework in mapping and analysing the key internal factors changing the nature of the firm, as well as the wider societal factors and evolving expectations of the workforce. We hope this can advance our understanding of the issues facing future firms, and allow individuals and organisations to focus on those dimensions that they think are most relevant to their work, but without restricting it to provide a single framework for the ‘firm of the future’.
As a research tool, dialogue stimulus and innovation map, the framework can help in two aspects:
1) challenging the existing knowledge compartmentalisation within the firm
2) reimagining the firm’s role and position within the wider ecosystem of the profession.
This toolkit is part of a research project with a detailed summary report on our interactions with more than 200 people from 20 accounting firms. The research adopted a mixed methods approach, which comprised of questionnaires, interviews and network analysis.
We are capturing the insights from organised workshops, online surveys and interviews. This helped us testing the framework and inviting input and feedback from practitioners from both industry and professional service firms, across all levels of their organisations.
All materials will be periodically made available to our collaborators. On the next page, you can find some of the ideas and questions that emerged from these activities.
Please get in touch if you would like to receive a copy of the summary report or if you would like us to help facilitate discussion in your own firm.