English ICA – Masters of destiny?

The mood was surprisingly upbeat as English ICA council members gathered last week to witness the handover of the institute’s presidency to high-profile KPMG partner Dame Sheila Masters.

Less than 24 hours earlier, a heavy blow had been dealt to efforts to transform the UK’s oldest accountancy body into something resembling a professional organisation fit for the 21st century, rather than one stuck in a time warp somewhere nearer the beginning of this century.

Efforts to introduce a small element of specialisation into the institute’s exam syllabus – considered essential by the council and most employers of trainee chartered accountants – were defeated by a hair’s breadth at the previous day’s agm after a backlash led by traditionalists.

This development and its potentially fatal implications for the institute are covered in depth on pages 16/17. But the tussle typifies the problems facing the institute as it looks forward to the next millennium.

Leading council members, Dame Sheila prominent among them, have instigated a programme of reform in an attempt to modernise the institute into something with greater relevance and responsiveness to its members and the modern business environment.

A worthy mission, you might think. But many members believe some of these reforms are happening too fast, or threaten to destroy existing mechanisms that already work well.

Witness for example how the institute’s lively network of district societies, upset at plans to make them self-funding, managed earlier this year to block the ‘Strategy for the 21st Century’ document, a blueprint which sets out many of these reforms. The crisis was defused, at least temporarily, by setting up some committees to discuss the issues further.

But the episode highlighted the many shades of opposition to the reformers’ plans.

Many involved in this particular dispute said they were not opposed to the idea of reform in principle, but objected to particular proposals.

There are others, however, whose opposition is more fundamental – some arguing that the institute is the puppet of the Big Five, and that the reforms are designed to benefit them at the expense of smaller firms and sole practitioners.

As in all organisations, there are also diehards who will oppose change whatever its merits, and in any shape or form. Dame Sheila’s robust approach to pushing through reform has added colour to many of the disputes so far. Now she has taken over the driving seat from Chris Swinson, who projected a more conciliatory exterior to the world, skirmish lovers are likely to be in for some more entertainment.

But her image could be softened this October when she launches a scheme to get more accountants involved in good works, an ‘upsurge in community volunteering’ to mark the millennium which she will be leading with deputy president Graham Ward, who takes over the presidency next year.

Dame Sheila’s opening presidential address to council focused on her favourite issues of reform and relevance. She urged members not to forget about the outside world as they entered ‘the old world grandeur of Chartered Accountants’ Hall’.

In a reiteration of her determination to drive through reform, despite the setback of the previous day, Dame Sheila continued: ‘Any pressure that exists in the business world impacts our members too – whether directly in their businesses or indirectly as business advisers. That in turn affects what our members want and need their institute to do.

‘It has to affect our institute too. If we do not reinvent ourselves, will we be able to meet the legitimate demands of our members in the future? If we ignore the power of digital technology, how can we hope to match our members’ business needs?’

Dame Sheila expanded on this theme in a recent interview with Accountancy Age: ‘I want to leave behind a more modern institute. A lot of the strategies and things we are doing are about modernising it – for example, we are trying to reform the secretariat.’

Greater use of digital technology is a vital part of this reform, she argued, pointing out that email was the most cost-effective way of dealing with a diverse membership of 120,000. ‘You can communicate in a more tailored way and make sure you don’t send members things they are not interested in,’ she said.

Dame Sheila also feels the institute is failing chartered accountants who work in business – more than half its membership. She returned to this in her opening address: ‘There are many members who do not feel the institute relates to them. I suspect many business members see little relevance in what we do in this place.’

Those who planned the institute’s conference next week, however, clearly had business members in mind. The keynote address is to be made by prominent business member Sir Brian Jenkins, chairman of Woolwich, and other addresses include ‘Finance Directors of the 21st Century’, by Glaxo Wellcome FD John Coombe, and ‘Investor Relations’ by Tim Waterstone, chairman of HMV.

Dame Sheila also mentioned younger members. ‘Who, hand on heart, can claim that we demonstrate relevance to our younger members?’ she said.

But the institute has a long way to go on this front if a speech by Nick Parker at the council meeting is anything to go by. It is true that Dame Sheila is the institute’s first female president but, to the ears of the younger generation, a whole speech devoted to the novelty of a woman holding such a position was painfully dated.

Those charged with guiding the institute into the new millennium now need to work hard to make sure members do not start thinking the same thing about the organisation as a whole.

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