Taking on Technology Training
ICAS and Lugo both conducted independent research projects last year on the risks and opportunities presented by technology for the Accountancy profession. In this article, we look at technology training, sharing insights from both studies.
In our previous deep dive article into cyber security, we highlighted a general lack of education and awareness across firms, from the top down. However, lack of knowledge and understanding when it comes to technology, is not limited to cyber.
Speed of technological change and a lack of basic technology knowledge and awareness are affecting all businesses. The need to keep up with the pace of change is particularly acute and it is easy to feel left behind.
Imagine you’re standing on a railway platform watching a train whizz past at 100mph - it’s almost impossible to board. However, if you're on the train, you hardly feel like you're moving at all. That’s how being left behind can feel when it comes to technology.
In this article, we will share our advice and highlight some free resources on how to use education to board the technology train.
Education should be from the top down to keep teams up-to-date on fast paced technological developments. A lack of understanding was however identified as a common concern across the majority of ICAS interviewees, and although 75% of respondents in the Lugo research said they felt they had enough awareness to make knowledgeable IT decisions, the concern of technology advisers is that accountancy firms do not understand the technology-related risks which they are facing and are therefore not doing enough about them.
A pervasive concern exists across many organisations that board members simply don’t have the basic knowledge or expertise on technology to enable them to ask the right questions or have sufficiently informed discussions when they are being called upon to make decisions on technology. They are thus unable to properly challenge IT advisers and suppliers or their own in-house IT specialists.
It was clear from the Lugo research that firms are looking for more ideas and innovation from their internal IT team. The view of technology advisers is that in-house IT experience within a single business can become stale, whilst the broader perspectives of external experts are maintained through exposure to a wide range of clients. It was noted that many larger firms employ in-house staff as well as engaging external advisers; internal IT functions are useful in helping staff use existing software, whilst external experts are often best to advise on new technologies.
A number of ICAS interviewees viewed staff training as a critical issue, and Lugo’s research found that on average firms train 87% of their staff, with only firms with over 5000 clients training 100% of their staff.
Pain points shared by participants included employees lack of IT skills and confidence, different levels of technical competence in staff / knowledge concentrated on a small number of employees, and a limited talent pool to recruit from.
It was recognised that firms should promote and recognise staff technology upskilling as an investment in future client service and business growth, as well as personal development, and that firms should prioritise training on technology-related matters.
The advances in technology, as it replaces lesser-skilled or more repetitive processes, also means that firms will need broader staff skills and expertise - to help relationship building, understand the nature of client businesses, exercise professional judgement, and provide the value-added client advisory services.
The pace of obsolescence and keeping up with new and emerging technology and products featured as a concern for many interviewees in both studies. This is exacerbated for many by the sheer number of apps and software solutions being introduced into the market. The key challenge is staying on top of this to advise the organisations in which you work and effectively serve your clients.
The ICAS research mentioned the implications for the established workforce of new technology – and the ability for them to retrain. We all wish for intuitive systems that require little training, and some people are naturally inquisitive as to how to make the most of the tools they have available, yet if our knowledge is outdated, so are our working practices and advice to clients.
We can’t all be experts in everything, so many firms take the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ approach. However, if you do have members of your team who have gravitated towards becoming highly proficient in certain software applications, this has its pros and cons:
- They are a great source of knowledge and an excellent resource for your firm, however
- If they are not available, who do you turn to?
You should ideally have more than one technology specialist on each product, to reduce the risk, and have them document their knowledge as much as possible. Online videos to answer frequently asked questions, or to remind users of processes they don’t perform very often, can be a great resource, and it’s specific to your firm. With a Microsoft 365 licence you can use Microsoft Stream to record videos of up to 15 minutes, although the shorter the better!
As far as the recruitment and retention of key technology staff is concerned, skills in the market are mostly available but often at a premium price – there is certainly a war for talent happening. Scarcity of the key skills can result in high salaries, and the shorter-term time horizon of younger people (who have been highlighted as being easier to recruit in technology roles) means that staff tend to move on much quicker so that a more continuous recruitment process is needed.
Having the ability to develop applications to meet firms’ requirements was mentioned in both studies. As an alternative to recruiting the expertise, some larger firms train up new graduates – not necessarily from an IT background – and enrol them in extensive courses in Digital and Technology Solutions. This works to ensure necessary skills in-house, especially in key attributes such as data management and data analysis, for the future.
Even in the recruitment for traditional roles, firms are more conscious of getting people with technology awareness, capabilities and enthusiasm, so as to provide an element of ‘future proofing’ for the firm. For larger firms, there is a question on whether they will take on accounting trainees to the same extent in the future, or whether they will need a greater mix of skills including data analysts, data scientists, and programmers.
Wouldn’t it make life a lot easier if clients were able to use the software better? Surprisingly therefore, from the Lugo research, it was noted that only 1% of firms’ turnover on average comes from training income.
Clients’ use of IT was indeed seen as a pain point, along with change adoption. Through Making Tax Digital, HMRC 's ambition is to become one of the most digitally advanced tax administrations in the world. For many clients, this means huge change to their bookkeeping process. Clients look to you, as their trusted advisor, to guide them through their digital journey.
In the ICAS research, technology was viewed as an enabler which should lead to efficiencies and better customer service. When staff are better educated, this increases their confidence in their own ability. This, in turn, leads to clear advice to clients on their technology options for their business moving forward. Offering training as part of a more personalised, tailored approach to all client relationships is an opportunity not to be missed.
- Microsoft Support: Microsoft’s Learning and Training area including the Microsoft 365 Training Centre and their Security Centre
- Compliance software education sites such as Wolters Kluwer CCH Learning Portal and Iris Training Centre
- Cloud bookkeeping certification, such as Xero, QuickBooks and Sage University
- Xero’s digital magazine Xu, to find out about new developments in the industry.
- National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) free interactive training
- Peer learning groups such as Accelerate or the Innovation 2020 group
From the CA qualification perspective, it’s important to teach broad principles relating to new and emerging technologies. ICAS has made significant developments to its syllabus to reflect technological developments and through agile syllabus review will continue to ensure that its learning pathways provide the best opportunity for relevant and up to date student learning development.
The rise of new technologies is having an impact on staff training within firms, including training as a Chartered Accountant. Fortunately, the majority of interviewees were very positive about the future development of technology and its impact on society.
We’ll never know everything there is to know about technology, but firms need to ensure they are not left behind. Supporting and encouraging employees and clients to embrace the benefits of this digital age will stand you in good stead for the future, whatever it holds.
ICAS has recently commissioned a new research project on the technological competencies required of financial professionals, and how to best acquire them. Look out for an introductory article on this research soon on icas.com.
Also look out for more insight into the key themes from the Lugo and ICAS 2020 research in future articles. If you would like to discuss any element of this article or jump onboard the technology train, please email Liz.Smith@LugoIT.co.uk.