Conference tackles big issues for practitioners
Anne Adrain reports from the ICAS Practitioners’ Conference, where major themes affecting CAs were addressed.
The Inspirational Practice was the theme of this year’s ICAS Practitioners’ Conference and innovation and adapting to a changing business environment featured heavily throughout.
We were delighted to welcome Royal Bank of Scotland as headline sponsor of the conference as part of their wider partnership with ICAS.
Karen Scholes, chair of the Members in Practice Advisory Board, welcomed attendees, and sponsors, before handing over to Michelle Mullen, ICAS Executive Director, for the opening remarks.
Michelle stressed that the practice community was the backbone of ICAS and referred to the more supportive monitoring approach adopted by ICAS in its relationship with practitioners, the only UK regulatory body currently adopting such an approach. In return, she hoped and encouraged practitioners to share the benefits of being regulated and the CA brand.
Making tax digital
The first key session of the day was provided by HMRC on their Making tax digital project. Toni Clark gave an overview of the Working Together meetings established by HMRC, in which ICAS participates, and its programme of stakeholder outreach. The group meets every 2 months to discuss examples of key issues and problems and tries to identity solutions. They also hope to develop an online forum in the future to highlight and share these key issues more widely.
Veronica Fell followed with what turned out to be a lively session on the process of transitioning the UK business tax regime to a digital platform by 2020. This process was intended to provide more real time financial and tax information about clients’ tax affairs. The digital transformation is being phased in, becoming effective for unincorporated entities and landlords from April 2018. VAT will become fully digital from April 2019 and incorporated entities from April 2020. IT and software will play a vital role in the digital transformation. However, Veronica was keen to highlight that assistance and support would be given to those entities who were unable to engage digitally.
Attendees were concerned about whether the timescale the implementation was realistic. Concerns were also voiced around the purpose of quarterly reporting,and the extent of extra work that might be required by agents to verify the figures. Although some of these themes were revisited in the group discussions sessions that followed.
Cyber security is a key concern for all businesses, large and small, in today's increasingly digital world.
The group discussions confirmed that most practitioners agreed that a security breach was inevitable for all organisations so the recovery process was key. This led to an animated presentation from Stuart MacDonald, Seric Systems, who introduced some of the ways in which an organisation’s security could be breached.
He highlighted that, as information became more publicly available, it was becoming easier for scammers and hackers to build a profile, resembling the organisation’s official one, and launch an attack.
Interestingly, there are more security breaches initiating from an internal source than an external one, so strong internal controls over who is authorised to make payments might prevent some of these instances.
The most common types of breach are likely to arise through phishing and ransomware. More wifi enabled appliances are also increasing the possibility of attack.
There is also government funding available for small businesses to help towards the cost of protection from cyber-crime. ICAS also has its own Cyber Framework which is specifically tailored for our practitioners.
After lunch, Kirsty Hart (pictured below) of RBS – the ICAS Practice Community Partner - presented on the bank’s journey to being more customer and innovation driven. RBS/Nat West is the biggest lender to SMEs and in order to understand what their customers want, they set up focus groups, made up of internal and external participants, to identify these needs and how to serve them. RBS has also set up Entrepreneurial Spark, a hub at their Gogarburn headquarters providing space where young entrepreneurs can develop their business ideas.
Still on the subject of innovation, Ed Molyneux (pictured below), CEO of FreeAgent presented on the way in which the profession was evolving and the challenges and opportunities this presented. Historically, professions were given elevated status and were somewhat exclusive, but this is changing as societal expectations outstrip what the profession is in a position to provide. Developments in automated technology might make some of the professional’s role redundant but that could present new opportunities in the form of other areas not currently included as part of the core service delivery.
The final presenter was Steve Pipe (pictured below) who announced proudly that ‘Accountants can change the world’. He referred to his research featuring 62 international case studies on the positive impact on these businesses - 71% of which were SMEs - of engaging an accountant. The financial impact was as would be expected: increased profitability and cash flow. What might be more of a surprise was the emotional impact of engaging an accountant. Terms such as piece of mind, in control, delighted, were used to describe these emotions. So, as a profession, Steve said we need to believe in ourselves and sell ourselves accordingly.
‘How the Americans are doing it’
The conference then linked via video conference to Gabrielle Luoma (pictured below) and Jason Deshayes from AICPA to hear about what the Americans are doing. Gabrielle is the owner of a small firm which operates on a virtual basis meaning she needs less space, produces less paper and offers staff flexibility in terms of working hours and location. There is no monitoring of working hours – performance is based on output. However, the ability to do this depends upon reliable technology to facilitate interaction and communication between the different staff involved in tasks.
The type of staff being recruited has also changed and firms are moving away from the traditional graduates with no work experience to people with other skills, for example financial analysts. The need for accountants to be trained in the softer skills, in addition to the technical skills, was also highlighted.
Jason discussed the need for a succession plan, particularly for sole practitioners, and how many of them are now considering this at an earlier stage of their career.
The final subject covered was firm culture and how some firms were moving to flatter organisational structures. The prospect of becoming a partner was no longer an attractive one for the younger generation due to the long hours’ culture. As a result, staff retention becomes difficult for these millennials who do not see what they do as providing any value.
It then fell to ICAS President, Ken McHattie CA, to wrap up the event and deliver the conference closing remarks. One of the key messages he had taken from the day was that we all needed to “work smarter as opposed to harder”.
Anne Adrain is ICAS Assistant Director, Sustainability and Assurance.
ICAS President Ken McHattie CA (pictured above) delivered the closing remarks.