It is often easy to get distracted by the cacophony of new technologies that promise to solve all a firm’s and client pain points. Businesses are people led, so any digital strategy used to drive innovation needs to be supported by its people and align with wider business practice. How would businesses go about creating a successful digital transformation strategy? More critically, how do they take their people with them on the digital journey?
Recently, Accountancy Age hosted a group of senior accountants to discuss these questions in a roundtable led by John Toon, senior manager and tech advisory lead at Beever and Struthers. He was supported by Joris Van Der Gucht, co-founder of Silverfin.
The group noted that for the accounting industry to harness the true potential of new technologies, firms must ensure they have the right digital transformation strategy in place, coupled with company-wide buy-in from its people. This report is a summary of the discussion during the round table.
Creating a successful digital transformation strategy
The importance of technology is not up for debate. However, at times, the importance of a digital strategy to support its implementation is overlooked. A digital strategy not only drives the effective use of new technologies but ensures all team members are working to reach the same goals. John Toon opened the conversation to the group to share their experiences, both good and bad, in creating a digital strategy.
For many, the biggest challenge in getting a digital strategy in motion is ensuring it is adaptable and agile, or able to evolve. Factors surrounding technology requirements never stay the same for long, especially whilst battling curveballs from HMRC. With ‘Making Tax Digital’, many participants admitted that they are often much better at establishing tech and digital strategies for their clients, than they are at using tech to drive quality and efficiency within their firm.
One roundtable participant, a qualified accountant at a legal firm, shared that their finance department has a dedicated tech team supporting their finance function. Because of this, they have seen their digital strategy evolve drastically and have consequently got the use of tech tools down to a fine art.
The group discussed the importance of having a clear framework to underpins any digital strategy. This allows teams to innovate within a trusted framework to drive consistency, whilst appreciating there is never a one-size-fits-all approach. It was agreed a framework is equally important to senior business leaders in recognising and understanding the objectives they want to achieve from any investments made.
Taking people on your tech journey
Silverfin’s Van Der Gucht shared that it is often senior leaders who make decisions around tech investment, and who, at times, fail to communicate the organisation’s ambitions in utilising a piece of technology. High levels of communication must be paired with a concrete digital strategy to ensure your people feel like they are part of the journey.
The benefit of establishing a champion to support tech implementation is something many have either used or considered. It was agreed tech champions need to be senior business leaders to support employee buy-in. The key question that dominated the discourse was how to build and execute a strong change management process whilst also managing current workloads. In short, it was agreed a tech champion cannot be an effective one whilst also still required to fulfil their day-to-day obligations.
How does a champion go about securing employee buy-in? Do they start at the bottom and work up? Or start at the top and work down? One participant shared that it tends to be the teams who sit in the middle of the organisation who act as the biggest blockers. This participant explained that their tried and tested approach was to start at the top and bottom in terms of engagement and then work down, to meet in the middle. Therefore, adopting a two-pronged attack to convert those most resistant to change.
Training, communication, and clear objectives were agreed by roundtable participants as imperative to widen company buy-in of new technologies. The biggest issue the group said they were now facing is staff: from lack of internal knowledge to suffering from limited resources. It was agreed employees will always be sceptical of the benefits technologies can offer when they are not literate in using them.
What is the biggest blocker to employee buy-in? Most attribute it to a fear of change, especially in traditional accountancy firms. This fear is driven by the prospect of technologies replacing their role. It all comes down to the narrative a company builds, and tech investment needs to be perceived as an exciting opportunity for consultative, strategic thinking for employees.
An aversion to risk
Accountants, as a professional group, are traditionally risk averse. How can you ensure they feel confident when entertaining the prospect of new technologies?
It is important to encourage a ‘trial and test’ discourse within your teams. If teams feel safe being given a chance to experiment with new technologies, to feedback on its use – what worked, why it worked, what did not, and why it did not – establishes an environment of learning. The onus falls on senior team members, to talk about their experiences of things they have tried and failed at, to encourage a learning workplace culture.
Documenting your digital strategy
Any objectives that feed into a digital strategy need to be both clear and concise. One participant shared they break their digital objectives down into 12-month goals to remain adaptable to change, whilst maintaining the overall digital vision.
If objectives are communicated properly with teams regularly, it drives transparency and employee buy-in. Not all participants were as advanced as this in establishing a rolling 12-month objectives plan for their digital strategy; some said they did not have one at all, or when they did have one in place, it was disjointed.
Toon closed the roundtable by highlighting the need to document a digital strategy to focus the minds of business leaders. The biggest takeaway sat in ensuring a tech champion is not an IT representative but someone who can lead digital transformation and implement a vision into future strategies. This cannot be a part-time role, clients will always come first and therefore successful transformation requires a dedicated, standalone individual to take the lead.