Practice Report Round Table – The changing landscape of Public Practice in Scotland

On Thursday the 20th February iMultiply launched its report titled ‘The changing landscape of Public Practice in Scotland’. The report is the product of surveying both employees and employers within the Public Practice sector on a number of topics affecting the sector.

The launch event was a roundtable discussion with some of the most prominent figures in the Public Practice sector in the west of Scotland in attendance.
The discussion centred around two questions, will there be such a thing as a ‘traditional’ accountancy firm in the future, and, how does the Public practice sector retain talented individuals.

On the first subject there were some divergent opinions with some of our contributors suggesting that due to the automation and digitalisation of some aspects of accountancy work the accountants of the future may have to have a different, more advisory skill-set, whilst others suggested that ultimately any change may not be too radical as what clients will require from accountancy firms will remain fairly constant. One comment was that the sector is in a transitionary phase and the likelihood is that some of what the sector currently does will not exist in the future and that will inevitably lead to greater diversification in the services that accountancy practices offer.  This will mean that the accountants of the future will require a different type of training to what is being offered at present and that both the professional bodies and the training firms will have to adapt to this. 

One thing that everyone was in agreement with was that technology is making a major impact on the sector both positively and negatively. There were concerns about data security, the threat of accountancy software providers attempting to bypass the sector and go to the market directly, the reliance of the sector on a small number of players in the tech space who may not have the most sustainable business models and the potential tendency of technology to reduce actual human interaction. This an area that is continuously evolving and it is obvious that Public Practice accountants are going to have to adapt, however, this may mean more and more investment in technology and an interesting point was raised around the 70% of practices in Scotland who are sole-traders and their ability or willingness to adapt to these changes.

The group also addressed the topic of audit reform and it was suggested that this may result in some radical changes to how ‘Big 4’ firms are structured and audit being seen more and more as an outright specialism.

The second question, relating to talent retention, sparked some debate around how much societal and cultural changes have shaped the attitudes and aspirations of trainees and newly qualified accountants as they consider their career path in accountancy. There was general agreement that a career in Public Practice can offer variety, job satisfaction, the opportunity for people to challenge themselves and to progress in their career. There was also a consensus that the sector could do a better job of ‘banging its own drum’ about the opportunities it can offer and that having ‘career planning’ conversations at earlier stages in peoples’ career could positively impact retention in the sector. 

The discussion also touched on the subjects of flexibility at work, dressing for your diary and mirroring your client’s expectations. There were some points of contention around the challenge of work planning and offering work flexibility and some amusing anecdotes regarding what is or isn’t suitable interview attire!
All in all this was a morning well spent with plenty of thought provoking and interesting contributions from a group of sector leaders. One of the aims in producing this report was to spark conversations and engagement around the issues and challenges facing the Public Practice sector, and on the evidence of this discussion it is already a success.  

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