Priming skills for evolution

The days of the accountancy firm treadmill, which marches graduates uniformly through their ICA exams and up the management ladder, are numbered, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers partner, Matthew de Lange.

Head of training and development at the Big Five firm, De Lange says accountancy firms need to radically change their approach to staff training and development if they are to survive the next decade.

Training and development in the profession has been designed to mass-produce auditors, he says, taking in top graduates from a variety of disciplines and giving them standard-issue training to develop identical skills.

De Lange admits this process has been very successful. Accountancy firms have thrived on the back of the audit process, and those who have completed their ICA training and decided to step off the senior-manager-partner ladder can usually take their pick of well-paid jobs.

But times are changing. To survive profitably, accountancy firms are having to offer an increasing range of services, and many now call themselves professional services firms rather than accountancy practices. This, coupled with advances in IT, means that many audit and tax-compliance tasks are becoming less labour-intensive and even de-skilled.

De Lange argues that the approach to training and development taken by many accountancy firms is in danger of becoming outdated. ‘If organisations don’t respond appropriately to the rapidly changing environment they are in, they will find they have the wrong skills,’ he warns.

De Lange and colleague Jon Andrew – PwC training and development manager – have been conducting research into building intellectual capacity in a professional services firm. They believe PwC and other accountancy firms urgently need a change of approach.

‘What we need is not the training culture that most firms have, but a more self-developmental approach so that individuals can foster the different skills they need,’ says De Lange.

The training situation at the moment in most firms, he argues, involves too much spoon-feeding, with too little emphasis on developing the skills staff need to become good business consultants.

‘Accountancy firms are breaking into new areas with much more consulting, requiring stronger personal skills, IT skills and much broader business skills.’

Exam set-up needs reworking

Part of the problem, De Lange believes, is the ICA exam structure. ‘Professional exams are entirely designed to make people jump through hoops. You pass professional exams by regurgitating the answer to the questions in the way you have been taught by your tutor in a way that the marker, who has discussed things with your tutor, is expecting.’

De Lange and his colleagues argue that accountancy firms perpetuate this culture by scheduling their training according to a staff member’s seniority or how long they have been with the firm. Too little notice is taken, he says, of what skills they actually need to develop into good business consultants. He says: ‘What we have in many firms is a training culture in the sense that training is done to you, like training a dog or training runner beans up a wire.’

‘Development implies that you stimulate growth but leave it to the individual to achieve that growth.’ Professional services staff, he says, should be treated more like shrubs than runner beans: ‘Like a shrub in the garden, you have to provide the right conditions so it will find its own shape.’

Encourage proactivity in staff

Andrew adds: ‘You have to empower people to be proactive and drive their own development. Firms and finance functions in companies have to create the right environment for staff to go off and seek the development they need for their current and future roles.’

The research team conducted over 50 interviews with PwC partners and managers to look into attitudes towards training and personal experiences of learning. To broaden the debate, they also looked at training and development approaches within other professional services firms – Arthur Andersen, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs.

De Lange adds: ‘In many accountancy firms, right from their induction course, people are carried through the system and have no responsibility for their own training and development. In other sectors, such as merchant banks, new people are given a role and business targets. They have to work out how to structure their own time, look for role models and work out for themselves how to be good at their job.’

De Lange is hoping to publish the results of the research as a book which, he says, will be the first to deal specifically with training and development in a professional services firm. If put into practice, the changes he is describing should have a major impact on the way ICA accountants are trained and move up the career ladder.

De Lange warns: ‘Those that get it right will be the winners in the future, and those that fail to respond to the changing market will be severely hurt over the next ten years.’

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