ICAS' student strategy embraces technology and flexibility
CEO Bruce Cartwright CA hails the new student strategy, putting flexibility and technology at the heart of our processes.
Our previous issue of CA magazine saw Cat Devaney CA, our Director of Professional Qualifications, outline some of the big changes we have implemented for students over the summer as part of our digital-first strategy. Here, I want to look at what that strategy means for our authorised training offices (ATOs), but also more broadly why digital-first means we can better serve the interests and expectations of all our members.
Back in 2018, when I became ICAS CEO, we had a way of doing things that had worked well for many years but clearly needed an overhaul. If you don’t update your processes, you’re in danger of giving the impression of stagnation, of being an institute too set in its ways. There are countless examples of businesses or organisations that became left behind – whose model, designed for an analogue world, quickly fell apart under challenge from a digital disruptor.
Becoming a CA is a tough process. That will never change. We won’t apologise for ensuring members of our profession attain a high degree of competency. However, our processes need to be as user-friendly and flexible as possible. First and foremost our new strategy has been about putting the student at the heart of the experience. Our traditional model afforded little flexibility in its delivery, so its appeal to a wider audience was limited.
It was evident that our old structure, which was designed around prescribed “block release”, didn’t suit a number of trainee accountants, in particular in industry, which operates to fairly rigid timetables, such as when finance departments have their end-of-month. Simply saying “see you in x weeks” couldn’t meet their needs. If we were to be serious about expanding our ATO base into industry, we had to change the model.
We now have much more flexibility, which means students and employers can create a preferred route of progressing. For example, if you’re coming into a firm and you’re looking to be a tax specialist, under the new way of learning, you can do the tax first – you can become a specialist in your chosen area much sooner than before. Likewise, if you don’t ultimately intend to become an auditor, you might delay the audit side.
That flexibility means the trainee becomes more valuable to the employer sooner. So the new system works on a commercial basis as well as a personal one. To be clear, we’re not abandoning the classroom. Far from it. But we are moving away from the approach where a student sits in a room and is spoon-fed information. Now, it’s much more like preparing for a business meeting, for which you will usually be asked to read some material before you go in, then discuss what you have read rather than talking about what you should read.
One of the first things we rolled out over the summer was our new registration process. Receiving feedback from an ATO saying the process is “great, I didn’t need to phone anyone, it was all done in 10 minutes” is exactly what we wanted to hear. The reduction in volume of questions we now receive around registration is clear evidence of a move in the right direction.
Changing perceptions among employers is a central part of our new processes. Over the summer we brought in new ATOs from both practice and industry. But this is just the start. We’re also going through a cultural change at ICAS. First and foremost, it’s a culture of people saying, “How can we make this easier, more flexible and less stressful for everybody?” – and the tool with which we will do that is digital.
But it’s also about putting the customer first, whether that customer is a business, an ATO or a student who will be a future member. We treat them with equal importance, whereas we must recognise traditionally we were more focused on the employer.
Taking another example, one of the major hindrances was the time it took to mark exams. So the ICAS learning team looked at it and set about streamlining that marking and moderation process without changing the quality of the outcomes.
We’re still in the early days of the strategy implementation. There’s a lot to be done, which includes continually looking at ourselves. For instance, if we have an enrolment process which means we’re saving time, what are we doing with that time? We want people to be doing the added-value work, not legwork that can be done by clever technology. It’s exactly the same with the auditors in their new world – if some of their work has become more automated, it allows them to spend more time on the stuff that really matters. The “grey matter” time, if you will.
I firmly believe we all will reap the benefits of our digital-first transformation. Ultimately, it will allow our staff more time to address the needs and concerns, not just of students or ATOs, but of all our members.
Visit icas.com/students for more on the student offering.