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Rapid economic, cultural and technological developments are reshaping global business, leaving little time for companies to adapt. How are fleet-footed professional services firms staying ahead of multiple complex transformations?

The pace of change in life and business is ever-accelerating, and as the experts that businesses turn to when times are tough, professional services companies are expected to stay ahead.

Whether they advise on IT, business planning, media strategy or accounting, these consultancies are helping clients with a myriad of challenges and opportunities, many of which were covered by industry executives at a recent panel discussion powered by IT consultancy and business transformation specialists Hitachi Solutions.

Roundtable panel

Luke Bozeat – Chief operating officer at GroupM

Peter Gallanagh – UK CEO at Azets

Michelle Maden – Vice-president, Key Accounts at Hitachi Solutions 

Elisabeth Maxwell – Deputy CEO at Mazars

Nicky Owen – Head of professional practices at Crowe UK

Becky Shields – Partner and head of digital transformation at Moore Kingston Smith

Richard Spofforth – Partner and board member at Kreston Reeves

“Life is tough out there,” says Elisabeth Maxwell, deputy CEO audit, tax and advisory firm Mazars. “Our clients are dealing with inflation, accelerating digital transformation, customer expectation, the war for talent, cybersecurity, sustainability and supply chain issues.”

Trust is key, says Peter Gallanagh, UK CEO at accountancy firm Azets. “When our clients are going through difficult times… they tend to turn to their professional advisers. Our expertise helps them overcome the challenges; it helps them build contingency plans,” he says.

Through the pandemic, firms could demonstrate their ability to be trusted advisers because of the breadth of their knowledge, says Becky Shields, partner and head of digital transformation at accountancy firm Moore Kingston Smith. “Regardless of the size of the organisation, being at the top is a lonely journey,” she says. “We could give [clients] real confidence in knowing that what they were doing was similar to what competitors were doing.”

But Shields adds that there’s room for development. “In the professional services sector, business models don’t necessarily lend themselves to the evolution sometimes required, as most firms operate as partnerships. This can stifle innovation as partners aren’t keen to reinvest their profits if the business case isn’t clearly articulated.” She continues: “So, while we are uniquely positioned to help our clients, sometimes, if we could extract ourselves from those quite rigid business models, we could be more responsive.”

Technological transformation

AI is already having an impact across industries, and when you’re in the business of advising clients, being able to access the knowledge you hold is where this new technology is likely to come to the fore. That’s according to Luke Bozeat, chief operating officer at media buying conglomerate GroupM.

“The big challenge is the speed of access to that knowledge because it’s held in spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations all over the business. And that’s where I’m particularly excited about AI,” he says. AI and generative AI – where machines can create content such as text or video from written prompts – will ultimately give employees a “second brain, trained on the breadth and depth of GroupM’s collective intelligence,” Bozeat adds.

Michelle Maden is vice-president, key accounts, at Hitachi Solutions, and she, too, sees the promise of AI. “Starting with the simple stuff, like requests for proposals and business development responses, it can bring efficiencies,” she says. “That’s just the beginning though – we’re going to have to focus on productising our AI services to allow us to focus our pure high-value consultancy work that we still need human brains for,” she says.

ChatGPT, the generative AI available to the public, must be used with caution, believes Richard Spofforth, a partner and board member at Chartered Account and advisory firm Kreston Reeves. “Knowing when people use ChatGPT to generate [information] will be important because we’ll need to know where it came from. Otherwise, we’re going to build up a false sense of trust,” he points out.

“The real threat we have from generative AI today is that globally it is probably going to erode jobs faster than we can create new ones. We might end up with a smaller, [more] tech-enabled workforce and a challenging economic environment,” he adds.

Building a resilient culture

Leaders also have a responsibility to manage technological developments and bring members of staff along with them. But how is this done?

Strong values will help create a positive culture, as Nicky Owen, head of professional practices at accountancy firm Crowe UK points out. “Our values are: we care, we share, we invest, we grow.  It’s important our people can see that we work with others with the same values,” she says.

Having such a culture helps people understand each other better and feel comfortable flagging when they have commitments outside work, for example. “Then you have a flexible workforce, and everybody feels empowered,” Owen says.

Having everyone understand a company’s vision is key, according to Gallanagh. “It’s a bit like President Kennedy turning up to Nasa [in 1962] and asking the janitor what his role was – and the janitor saying: ‘My role is to put a man on the Moon.’” he says. At Azets, a five-year plan sets the firm’s vision, with staff given updates every two to three months. The firm also involves staff at all levels and has an influencer board made up of people under the age of 25.

It’s of the utmost importance that employees feel valued and supported. We’re a people business, and to retain the best talent, we have to have the right culture

Maxwell agrees. “We’ve been clear on the firm’s culture. We want to show respect for the individual, do the right thing and take responsibility,” she says. Mazars recently changed its employee value proposition, naming it Mazars and Me, to help everybody bring their best self to work and encourage new team members to see what it is like to work at Mazars. “Communication is important, but so is two-way communication, to really listen [to our team] in a formal and informal way,” she explains.

At Hitachi Solutions, values are a focus. “Sincerity, harmony and pioneering spirit are values that are entrenched in everything we do; they are guiding principles which help us get the best out of our people. It’s also of the utmost importance that employees feel valued and supported,” Maden says. “We’re a people business, and to retain the best talent, we have to have the right culture.”

Being authentic about personal experiences also creates an open culture, says Owen. “Last year, I posted on LinkedIn because I lost my husband during Covid. At the time, there were conversations around bringing your whole self to work. Every day, I have to make a decision whether I do that. At the time, there was a focus on LGBTQ+ [people] expressing themselves – but it’s not just about one particular group of people, it’s everybody,” she says.

The importance of diversity

Diverse groups of people bring multiple benefits, says Bozeat. “Diversity of people, of thought, of capability is incredibly useful for business because you move into spaces that you might not have otherwise. It is also incredibly empowering because it allows people to see an opportunity where they might not have thought there was one,” he says.

Shields agrees: “Having people who think differently doesn’t mean you have silos. Because in celebrating each other’s differences and strengths and weaknesses, we encourage people to build the best solution for our clients,” she says.

A sense of purpose was also important, the panel agreed, with Kreston Reeves recently gaining B Corp certification, which took around three years. “Quite a lot of people like to support causes, but that’s not the same as purpose,” Spofforth points out. “Demonstrating the things we’ve done – not just our policies and procedures and words – provides evidence that resonates with our people,” he says.

Adapting your business model to meet clients’ needs is a focus for Mazars, so, for example, the firm recently created a service line dedicated to ESG. “They need the subject matter experts on these topics,” Maxwell says.

For Maden, firms need to continue investing in tools to help clients. “They’re thinking about digital transformation. Where do they start? And how do they get value early? That’s where professional firms need to continue to invest in tools, accelerators, that bake in the experience that we have, to deliver value quickly.”

For those that can embrace the pace of change, exciting – if challenging – times are ahead.