People power: Has tech run ahead of the market?

Building teams in a digital world
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While the talk on the QuickBooks Connect main stage focused on the developer’s latest MTD product updates, conversation elsewhere in the Old Billingsgate venue emphasised people rather than AI and tech.

One of the first announcements on day two of QuickBooks Connect was the keynote's unveiling of SmartLook. Effectively replacing a chatbot, QuickBooks users will be able to summon a human equivalent of Microsoft’s paperclip. “We put a human inside QuickBooks,” announced QuickBooks’ executive vice president Alex Chriss. Whether intended or not, this statement actually set the tone for the whole day.

The international accounting giant dedicated its afternoon breakout sessions to people-centric talks such as ‘Be a people first firm’, and having a guided mindfulness meditation during the 'Boost your resilience' workshop. And speaker Warren Cass even signed off his presentation with “it’s not B2B or B2C, it’s H2H (human-to-human)”.

However, it was Will Farnell’s ‘building great teams in a digital word’ session (pictured above) that captured the essence of why people-centric talk dominated the event: technology has run ahead of the market.

Challenges of change

Session presenter Farnell invited cloud managers Emma Chesson from Kreston Reeves and Stuart Hurst from UHY Hacker Young to the stage. What linked the two were the challenges they’ve pushed against within their different-sized firms and changing client behaviour.

Change is difficult when you have to convince 50 partners. Chesson was faced with this task when she took charge of Kreston Reeves’ cloud team. Recent millennial partner promotions have helped push forward the firm’s cloud journey. But again, the success of their cloud team goes back to people and values.

AI is changing at an exponential rate… whereas people are a lot harder to manage

But with offices spread across London, Kent and Sussex, Chesson faced another large firm challenge of micro-cultures. Speaking after the session on an AccountingWEB podcast (listen below), Chesson explained: “AI is changing at an exponential rate… whereas people are a lot harder to manage. When you’ve got to change the mindset of potentially 500 people it is not an easy task. At Kreston Reeves we’re looking to realign our values but that is not a process that is going to happen on day one. It will take some time. But cloud is enabling us to work more agile and transparently.”

“But that’s how it’s always been done”

Although Hurst‘s had a slightly smaller number of partners at UHY Manchester to convince, his task of implementing new values was no easier. In two and a half years he has slowly broken down the firm's corporate approach, often butting heads against “that’s the way it’s always been done”.

As much as Hurst relied on his tech knowledge to get the cloud team off the ground he equally had to become a change agent within the firm. When he joined he was sold on the idea of a cloud department, which transpired as being him and a bookkeeper who hated cloud technology. Not the crack team he imagined, it’s safe to say.

People would rather die than change

But Hurst’s enthusiasm eventually rubbed off on his colleagues: “I’d scream and shout about any small win and get people excited.” Soon, with an AAT staff member, they flipped the perception of the cloud department to such an extent that even the auditors wanted to get involved.

Hurst used a statistic to illustrate the challenge in front of the lone cloud advocates within a firm. “When people go to the doctors and are told to change their lifestyle 77% die. People would rather die than change,” underlined Hurst.

Hurst broke through the cloud apathy not through demonstrating its wizardry but through personality tests and interpersonal skills. He adapted his usual extroverted self and recruited other personality types in the team.

With different personalities gradually getting behind his cloud team, Hurst marched his team into battle against his final cloud challenge – MTD. Shaken by the number of clients he still needed to get MTD-ready, Hurst arm-wrestled partners to get behind his cloud drive.

Hurst also accelerated his firm’s cloud adoption by adding a little partner competition. Without their knowledge or permission, he shared the performance of each partner’s attempts to transition their clients to the cloud. It may have ruffled some partners pride, but Hurst’s “easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” tactic helped keep the firm apace with the technology changes and also establish the culture of transparency.

Culture and values

Ten years ago topics such as culture, values and people would have been dismissed as woolly management team fluff. Farnell, though, is proof that personality and brand are today’s biggest difference makers.

And as the mass rollout of MTD puts every firm on a level technological playing field, Farnell emphasised how firms’ personality and values will be the differentiator.

What can’t be overlooked in this focus on people is the generation shift. Farnell is a self-professed “wannabe millennial”. A statistic he often refers to is by 2025 75% of the workforce will be millennials. At 70%, Farnell Clark is not far behind hitting that workforce demographic stat.

Passion and grit are what gets you through

As Farnell outlined in his session, the firm’s personality doesn’t only attract clients. Rather than shelling out on a recruitment company, they have received more than 50 CVs in two weeks since announcing their total flexible working.

But as the panel and frankly the day demonstrated, none of this is possible without getting the whole team to buy into change. “If you don’t have a vision it’s really important that you know and your team knows where you want your firm to go,” Farnell told the AccountingWEB podcast. “If you’re talking about building out firm values and firm brand, if your team doesn’t know what they are, your clients have got no chance.”  

For Chesson, this emphasis on People is one of the optimistic glimmers of hope from the day. “As much as we have identified difficulties in terms of change and people… everyone that has fulfilled this role of head of cloud has done it with passion. And at times, passion and grit are what gets you through.”

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's Practice Editor. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.

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05th Mar 2019 10:44

I have said many times that tech is running ahead of the market. It's time for catch up and consolidation. Otherwise there will certainly be a great divide between the "high techies" and "low techies". This will show when MTD really takes hold.

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05th Mar 2019 19:03

Great summary Richard.
I too was struck by the absence of speakers trying to persuade accountants they need to move away from compliance work to advisory services. This was in stark contrast to the continuous (and often misconceived) talks urging this in recent years.

As long as accountants keep in mind that clients will largely continue to want a personal touch, and they provide this, they will hang onto their clients. Services will evolve over time - as they always have done.

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to bookmarklee
08th Mar 2019 09:02

Mark, I'm impressed with your analogy.

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08th Mar 2019 08:11

The greatest number of concurrent clients getting to the document in the meantime for QuickBooks Pro is three clients and Premier Edition is five clients. A server does not consider a client if nobody chips away at QuickBooks on the server itself. Shadowhunters Jacket

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to heatherrosado
11th Mar 2019 17:50

Thanks for sharing this piece of information. I really enjoyed it. keep up the good work and all the very best of luck! American Flag Leather Vest

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