IAFA 2022 key themes and insights
IAFA 2022 gathered industry experts, leaders, and trailblazers to share ideas, projections for the future, and sector insight. Katherine Dumbell reflects on some of the key themes that emerged during the day.
Entering its second decade, the International Accounting Forum & Awards 2022 (formerly Digital Accountancy Forum & Awards) was another success. On the 29 June 2022 in the Waldorf Hilton, London, the event brought together engaging speakers and some of the sector’s leading technology vendors, regulators and industry bodies, consultancies, and advisors. In its 11th year, the re-named event looked beyond digital transformations and trends to a more holistic view of some of the key drivers affecting the accounting industry and their clients, while the evening awards ceremony celebrated industry leaders.
Allinial Global president and CEO Mark Koziel opened his talk emphasising that these digital and data transformations and progress have been spoken about for the past ten years – they are not new or wholly down to the pandemic. As reflected in the IAFA’s name change, there is no longer a need to purely focus on digital and technology aspects as new drivers of change. Koziel added we should be looking at the ‘right’ kind of transformation with the right steps in place to achieve this. This is not to say that technologies do not continue to evolve and rapidly develop, bringing new opportunities at an increasing rate. However, their influence is intertwined with all the other new emerging drivers and trends.
Having been invited to the day’s forum as an intern with The Accountant and the International Accounting Bulletin, I reflect on the 5 key emergent themes of the day: hybrid working, employment and skills, efficiency, purpose, and opportunity.
Deloitte director Sam Plotkin identified that a key way of making a more purposeful and people-centric accounting profession was focussing on interpersonal relationships. Plotkin emphasised that this now means developing hybrid relationships.
Moxo senior corporate solutions spokesperson Shimona Pinto in the first panel discussion of the day, the Global Outlook for the Post-Pandemic Firm, emphasised the need for a hybrid blend of in-person and online working. Moxo’s client management technology automates a lot of processes, integrating data on one digital platform. However, Pinto emphasised that there is a time and place for both digital and in-person interaction. For more emotional discussions for example, Pinto stresses the continued need for in-person discussions.
Speaking with Pinto after her talk, she further emphasised the need for a shift in focus from in-person to online tools rather than a complete change from one to the other. She highlighted that companies are recognising the need to meet the client where the client is.
This now means on their phone – “simple, easy, convenient”. She likens this to a ‘digital branch’: “where you can attract the most amount of clients.” It is easy for people just to walk past a physical location, or it to be in an inconvenient location for travel. For her, hybrid working is about ease of use and efficiency, whilst recognising that “you can’t get rid of the human touch.”
This theme was also addressed by Koziel. He highlighted that we will never be 100% back in the office and that a hybrid and flexible work environment was here to stay. Although this raises new challenges, he argued that companies must ‘commit, create, and maintain’ this environment using purposeful systems to achieve this.
Employment and skills
The employment and skills shortage within the accountancy profession was also touched upon throughout the day. For more on these themes, take a look at the International Accounting Bulletin June 2022 Supplement, Future of Work .
The overarching message was that there is a shortage of entry-level accountants. One of the questions raised in the panel discussion on Building a Sustainable Practice was: Gen Z have grown up as technology users, so what are the implications for recruiting and retaining them? Inflo president and CEO Mark Edmondson answered that it is important for companies to align the way they work with the expectations of these new accountants. Edmondson suggested looking at what the ACA is teaching, as if your firm is behind, new recruits will either leave to go to one that’s more tech-forward or leave the profession entirely.
Answering a follow-up question on how to retain the current generation of accountants, Ignition managing director EMEA Emma Crawford-Falekaono emphasised the need to understand the strengths of different generations. Crawford-Falekaono highlighted that the current generation has knowledge to impart too; knowledge such as running businesses and client management can be valuably imparted to the younger generation.
Koziel also addressed this theme, emphasising that the once-pyramidal structure of the workforce is being undercut due to this shortage at entry-level. Technology and automation, and outsourcing were identified as partially filling these gaps. Koziel also said that they were hiring more people at manager level with industry experience now, emphasising a different type of teaching and learning to traditional graduate hiring.
Ultimately, efficiency is a core goal for most if not all businesses. Starting off the final session of the day, Future-Proofing your Practice, M-Files executive account manager John Rockcliffe shared some statistics with the group. Rockcliffe highlighted that 23% of the average employee’s workday is spent looking at emails, and 31% of the day is spent just searching for information. The everyday inefficiencies that could be cut down by easier-to-use, and often more secure, technology was highlighted. In the later panel discussion, he summed it up well: “If you can do anything to remove complexity from something that shouldn’t be complex, do it.”
A Silverfin representative I spoke to also emphasised the hassle of having to deal with “fragmented” and non-updated data. Silverfin aim to help eliminate these issues with “an open-base platform that’s fully cloud-native and we have API connectors so we connect with all our clients’ bookkeeping data.” They aim to get all “data standardised onto our platform” so “we can build workflows on top of that” to improve efficiency.
In her talk, Future Proofing your Firm, Crawford-Falekaono identified that traditionally, improving efficiency has involved reducing headcount. However, she emphasised that this should not always be the case. The ‘robots are going to takeover’ argument holds no sway in her book as she argues that currently people are still needed to make the business decisions, and decide how technology should be used, and to achieve what aims. Ultimately, “People do business with people.”
To illustrate this efficiency point, Crawford-Falekaono showed a video comparing modern Formula 1 pitstops to those in 1950. Although today’s team consists of several more people than in 1950, it took up a considerably smaller portion of the video. She emphasised efficiency is about having the right people in the right jobs at the right time.
There was an emphasis throughout the day on the importance of a purpose for businesses and employees. PrimeGlobal CEO Stephen Heathcote emphasised in his talk Getting Started on ESR that employees want to work somewhere impactful. Talking about his key takeaways from the day, Heathcote said there was a positive reminder emerging throughout talks for everyone to have a sense of purpose and to ask ourselves what we stand for.
Amongst these discussions, questions were also raised about what growth means. Crawford-Falekaono emphasised that it is important to identify what growth means for you and your client. She gives the example that it may be creating more time; growth doesn’t have to just be about profit.
Theta global Advisors partner Chris Beggs in his talk Building a Sustainable Practice also pointed out that growth may not always be best in the long-term and suggests interrogating what the role of profit is in an organisation.
Thrive founder and CEO James Lizars also touched on these topics in his talk. Selling the business case for leaning into environmental and social sustainable principles, he emphasised that for his business, pledging revenue for other causes and continuing to grow his business did not have to be a trade-off. In fact, Thrive is still on a growth trajectory. However, he also emphasised that few people are actually only in business to just make endless money, and even if they are, there is often still a purpose or motivation behind gaining this – whether it’s for their kids to have a good education, or to support other causes close to their heart.
Talking with me afterwards, Lizars tells me “I think we’re still teaching a version of Milton Friedman which basically says that businesses exist for the benefit of the shareholder, and that shareholder primacy is everything.”
“B-corp has bubbled up alongside that saying ‘well hold on, that doesn’t sound that good – it's kind of what got us into this mess. So how about we do it differently?”
He concludes, “Sure everyone who runs a business has some money need. You start getting beyond that, and then it’s all the other motivators that really come into play.”
It is clear that there are many opportunities for accountants at this time. New technology is enabling new ways of working. This includes hybrid ways of working and serving clients, covering employment and skills shortages, and increasing efficiency. Plotkin points out that opportunities in technology should be used to their full advantage by combining the new technology with people, rather than just trying to throw either one at the problem.
Looking to the future, there is an opportunity for accountants to talk to businesses about sustainability. As Heathcote points out, this could just be starting conversations with clients and signposting them to resources.
As Plotkin phrased it, accountants' role is to “bring light to dark, be champions of true and fair.”
A day for making connections
Speaking with just some of the vendors at IAFA 2022, Sterling, Inflo, Moxo, Wolters Kluwer, Silverfin, and Circit, they told me that the IAFA is a brilliant place for building new relationships, as well as strengthening existing ones. They emphasised that it was a great place for starting conversations, enhancing brand recognition, and getting to tell people about what they do. However, as for all of us, they emphasised it was a day of learning. It ensured that they were developing in-line with industry requirements and understanding the needs and challenges of their consumers.
A Circit representative emphasised the opportunity the event gave to build “relationships with global networks” and the importance of “making sure that we are developing the products in-line with requirements.”
Wolters-Kluwers representatives told me the aim for them coming to the event was “more relationship building, it’s not as if we have specific deal-value target that has to come off the back of this kind of event.”
“Being in the room having conversations with these people,” was seen as important, as well as “brand recognition and getting to meet fellow people in the industry.”
Ultimately IAFA 2022 was a day of learning and relationship-building. Looking at the future opportunities highlighted by the day, the importance of purpose, development in employment and skills, and the future of hybrid working points towards an exciting future for the accountancy profession. I hope that those who attended take with them some of the exciting ideas and insights back to make a difference in their own organisations and come back with just as many new insights and calls to action at next year’s event.