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DIGITALISATION: THE HUMAN FIRM
Last updated: 16 Jun 2023 10:00
Posted in: AIA
Will Farnell (Founder and director, Farnell Clarke) examines how digitalisation can provide the foundations for the evolution of accountancy firms, so that we can offer a unique offering to the clients.
We are a profession in a rapid period of flux, change, challenge and opportunity, in a digital world that is impacting our lives in all sorts of ways. We are also witnessing technology shifting into areas that risk dehumanising us. In a people business like accountancy, what does this mean for us as firm owners, our clients and our teams?
I am sure many of you will have heard the term ‘a digital firm’ or ‘a digitised firm’. What do these terms mean to you? Like other buzz words we hear in our profession, the likelihood is that they mean different things to everyone. I am perhaps better placed than many to attempt to define at least one of these terms, having written a book in 2018 titled ‘The Digital Firm’. This book aimed to be a blueprint for accountants and bookkeepers who wanted to better utilise technology in their business. I defined my view of the digital firm as:
‘A firm that utilises a blend of digital technology and digitally aware staff to deliver first class client services efficiently and effectively through maximum level of automation.’
This definition can be broken down. Firstly, it is no good using great technology if you have staff who won’t use it, can’t use or don’t want to use it. We must bring our people on the journey with us. The second point is that we must use technology to deliver the best possible experiences for our clients. Finally, if we blend people, process and technology in the right way, we will generate efficiency and effectiveness and find ways to automate more of what we do.
That’s all fine, of course, and explains the ‘what’. But what about the ‘why’? Why should we be interested in building a digital firm?
The best way to start with the why is for me to share a little about the evolution of my own firm, Farnell Clarke. I set my firm up in 2007 and I had what I believe was the benefit of not having trained in practice. As a result, I had no preconceptions about how to run an accounting firm, so I put myself in the shoes of a client and asked myself: ‘If I was buying accounting services, what would I want?’
I should add that the reason I set up my firm is that I thought I could do it better. I thought that professional services were broken and that my job was to change the way professional services were delivered and perceived by those who used them. Quite a grandiose statement for a one-man band operating from the back of a garage in my garden!
Only in the last few years did I realise that it was this blind faith and belief that led me to build the firm I have today. How does this answer the why though? There are a number of reasons why we should digitalise, not least because digital is such a fundamental part of our lives.
Generation Y and Generation Z expect it, as do our team members from those generations. But the most important thing is that without digitalising what we do, we cannot deliver what our clients deserve and need. (Although they might not always know what it is they need – that’s our job!).
The diagram above, The path to digitalisation, shows the path that led my firm to becoming probably the first 100% online/cloud practice globally back in 2009.
This is a diagram that I used following the release of my book in 2018. I talked about what the next evolution of our digital firm might be. I have the answer now in the title of my second book, published in April 2023, ‘The Human Firm’. This sets the scene for how we can utilise the foundations laid in the digital firm to significantly impact the lives of both clients and team members in shaping a firm fit for the next decade in the shadow of technological development, particularly around artificial intelligence (AI).
Digital adoption, or the lack of it…
You would not be alone if you felt that technology was firmly adopted and embedded in the accounting profession but I’m here to shatter that myth!
In 2018, I estimated that we were at about 20% adoption of cloud accounting tools in the UK market. It didn’t really make any difference if that figure was taken from an end client user perspective or accounting and bookkeeping firm adoption – the number was about the same. I went further in that I predicted less than 2% of UK firms were what I would consider fully digital. This meant in 2018, if you were on the journey to using cloud accounting tools you were in the top quartile of firms in the UK.
But I was wrong in 2018! Despite my best efforts, I still believe there is a 20% adoption rate even in 2023. I would further suggest that only a fifth of the 20% (at best) has made it to digital firm status.
This means that 15 years after my firm started on this journey, in 2023 you are still an early adopter if you are using cloud accounting tools. This means the opportunity is immense for firms ready to take action now.
How do you become a digital firm?
The model for how to become a digital firm, which underpinned the book I published in 2018, is shown in The components of a digital firm. These are the separate components a firm needs to focus on and manage on the transition to being fully digital. The key point is that only 20% of it relates to the technology itself.
There is one key thing to take away from this: any change you need to make in becoming a digital firm should only focus on those things that directly or indirectly impact the lives of your clients and enhance the client experience you deliver.
From a more practical application, technology of course plays a key part. It is essential that we start by deploying technology that provides a mechanism in your firms for input, process and output. Being a digital firm is more than moving clients from a desktop software solution to a cloud based one. We did that in 2009 – and the only reason was because the technology was not there to let us do more.
The absolute minimum for even a cloud accounting firm in 2023 – let alone a digital firm – from a tech perspective is to have a cloud general ledger with a pre-accounting tool for receipt and invoice capture, and bank feeds connected.
The key transition from cloud accounting to digital firm is recognising the need to allow your business model to evolve. The technology at our fingertips allows us to provide up-to-date, meaningful data. That is the bedrock to a truly digital firm in the insight we can deliver to clients.
Why bookkeeping is the key to the digital firm
The penny drop moment occurred for me in 2011, when we adopted Receipt Bank (now known as Dext). As many accountants back then, I did not really offer bookkeeping services. I saw it as low value work, which we could not make a profit on if it was delivered as an affordable service for our small clients. Of course, I ended up doing bookkeeping anyway as part of the end of year process but I persuaded myself that it was part of the annual accounts package. I therefore delivered it effectively for free!
Dext allowed us to take control of the bookkeeping and in doing so we controlled the quality of the data, the timeliness of the data and how we managed it to deliver better services to clients. Over time, we developed processes and structure in our business that enabled us to deliver daily bookkeeping to our clients, averaging around four minutes per day per client. In doing so, we developed what I refer to as ‘live’ accounting data. It’s not real time – we can’t do that yet. But with live data, we are delivering unique insight to our clients, allowing us further scope to deliver new and higher value services.
The evolution to the Human Firm
In writing my most recent book, ‘The Human Firm’, I have stated in the book that to be a Human Firm you first need to be a Digital Firm. ‘The Human Firm’ sets the blueprint for what a firm fit for the next decade might look like and how it operates. It takes the learnings I have encountered in the last five years, as we have looked to understand more about why we have the business we have today. It helps us to consider how we ensure that we remain competitive in a world where every firm has access to the same technology; and that we can easily replicate the processes and structures I have happily shared so publicly. It’s not just me, of course. Many others have done the same and are equally willing to share.
The only differentiator left for us now is our people, our own uniqueness and how we blend these into a unique offering to the clients we serve.
It is here that the importance of the power of regular bookkeeping and the control of the data which we have helped create comes into its own. It allows us to close the loop on the evolution of professional services, leaving it in a better place than where the circle started. This is demonstrated in the diagram below, Closing the loop of professional services.
My linear evolution diagram has become a loop. It ends where we started, before compliance got so complicated. Thirty years ago, accountants had great relationships with their clients but the introduction of regulatory compliance got in the way – and our focus shifted from maintaining those great relationships to keeping clients out of jail!
Technology – through the stages of online accounting, cloud accounting and the digital firm – has given us back the time to refocus on those relationships of old.
We are in a better place than we were 30 years ago. Our great human relationships are now superpowered by data. We have the ability to add real value to these relationships by surfacing insights that were not previously available to us or our clients.
Of course, these benefits are only available to us if we have created the foundations built by being a truly digital firm: utilising the best technology with digitally aware staff; focusing on the experience we deliver to our clients; and building processes and structures that enable us to build the best possible relationships with clients through frequent touchpoints. Finally, we must be a firm that has created capacity through automation.
A digital firm such as this is well placed to develop to become a Human Firm, benefiting from the deep personal relationships it has with its clients: underpinned by the understanding of the goals, aspirations and objectives of those clients at both a personal and business level. It will also create a unique culture that enables us to recruit and retain the very best people to support clients in achieving these goals, whilst enabling our own team members to fulfil their own goals and aspirations.
I invite you to join the journey to the Human Firm, building on the solid foundations of being a truly digital firm.
Will Farnell is founder and director of Farnell Clarke, and author of The Digital Firm and The Human Firm.
"In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, staying ahead of the curve is crucial for the long‑term success of any accountancy practice. Embracing digitalisation is not just a choice; it’s a necessity. By fully integrating digital tools and technologies into your practice, you can unlock a multitude of benefits that will enable you to thrive in the digital age." George Josephakis, AIA Council Member