2020 will be known as the year of the pandemic. Globally, it was the toughest of years on all fronts – and not just for people’s livelihoods and the economy: the pandemic has – and still is – touching people on a personal level as each day goes by. Zoya Malik analyses the 2020 performance of global accounting networks and associations

In February 2020, at the World Survey launch, we reported that the break-out of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China posed a threat to business life based on signs that had started to affect Chinese manufacturing centres, with a knock-on effect on logistics and delivery.

We could not have accounted for what would unravel soon after, hitting us all in a domino effect. We moved all our working and schooling activities online, and have been making adjustments in trying to balance routine with productivity, home life with work life and social life – or the lack thereof. Some have fared better and some far worse in a very short space of time. Most tragic of all is that human life was – and still is – at stake.

Having said that, humans are tough, resilient and able to learn from shared experiences. And it is easier to get through tough times when one realises ‘we are all in it together’.

Now with the roll-out of a number of vaccines and programmes underway around the world, there is a prevailing sense that some semblance of what we collectively regarded as ‘normal life’ may be recaptured.

Having said that, the forced slower pace of working, networking and lead generating online, coupled with the need to accelerate and digitise, has allowed time for inward reflection, both in a personal and business sense. This time has allowed greater levels of productivity and efficiencies through cost cutting. While we all wait for the outlook to change, much is underway in terms of risk management and business forecasting. All these positives have been reported by leaders in the accounting industry.

This year’s IAB World Survey includes fee income from 52 global organisations, 30 networks and 22 associations. Among the 30 networks, only five reported decreases in fee income, and overall growth for networks was 3%, with total revenue reaching $210bn.

For associations it has been a more challenging year, as the 22 participating associations reported a combined 2% growth, with revenue totalling $30.8bn. In comparison, last year associations grew 14%.

For the Big Four, 2020 was far from straightforward; however, despite the challenges, three of the four giants reported growth. The Big 4 jointly saw a $2.2bn increase to reach $157bn in combined fee income.

Deloitte remains market leader as its fee income edges ahead of second-placed PwC, with fee income of $47.6bn for the year ended 30 June 2020, up by 3%.

In the mid-tier, BDO was the leader of the pack for networks, with growth of 7% to just over $10.2bn, followed by RSM with 9% growth and fee income of just under $6.3bn.

By service line and region

Across audit, performance was sluggish with networks seeing a small 1% increase in fee income to $71bn, while for associations fee incomes in audit overall were flat, with combined fee income just under $9.3bn.

It was a better year for tax as networks grew the service line by 3% and associations by 10%. Similarly, fee income increased by 4% for networks in advisory to $76.6bn, and 8% for associations to $5.4bn.

Positive growth in fee income was seen across most regions for both networks and associations, with the exception of Latin America, where networks and associations reported 6% and 1% decreases in fee income respectively. Associations also reported a drop of 10% in the Middle East; however. networks reported a stronger performance with a 12% increase in fee income.

In terms of staffing, growth was seen in most regions, despite the impact of the pandemic. The only exception was in Latin America, with 3% and 6% falls in staff numbers for both networks and associations respectively.

Exactly what the post-pandemic landscape will look like is open for debate, but there is no doubt that restoring the health of the world’s economic and commercial engine is our next priority.

To this end, while the accountancy industry is as susceptible to the vagaries of the course of the ongoing pandemic as any other, firms are planning and implementing strategies for survival today and growth tomorrow.

Clients have come to expect their auditor to have a global purview, but combining this reach with consistency in providing excellence, along with a dedicated methodology, is often a fundamental challenge. Core to solving this challenge is giving auditors a clear, specialist career path. The exit of smaller accounting and advisory firms and the growing pressure towards consolidation on smaller market participants has been playing out for some time, and pushed along by the global emergency, the competitive landscape is changing dramatically.

In business, as in other areas of life, the most difficult decisions often concern people, and from the outset of the pandemic, the biggest concern for every CEO has been ensuring that their colleagues can continue to work safely, efficiently and happily while maintaining business continuity and a high-quality service delivery. Moving significant numbers of people over to an entirely remote working model almost overnight has been a challenging task for everyone.

Apart from the pandemic, other significant geopolitical events have affected the global economy throughout 2020; the final post-Brexit trade agreement between the UK and the EU, Joe Biden’s election victory and the subsequent further polarisation in US politics, China’s growing influence in all corners of the world, the inexorable march of right-wing politics in India, race relation debates enflamed by the death of George Floyd etc.

These and many other factors affect businesses and livelihoods, and combined with the disastrous economic effects of Covid-19, companies across the globe are having to look at three key areas. The first is the need to adjust to the ‘new normal’, changing business models and strategies. Second is adopting – or in many cases, accelerating – the adoption of new technology to continue providing traditional services in a more efficient manner. Third is adjusting future resource planning, both human and physical, to what will suit this brave new world.

Audit

One cornerstone of the accountancy industry, the audit function, has been undergoing something of a transformation over the past few years, with an emphasis on making it a specialist service unit to achieve a type of independence while maintaining quality.

Audit and assurance is crucial for the efficient functioning of all economies and capital markets. It may become even more relevant as sustainability and climate performance come into greater focus, and the related societal demands for transparent and reliable reporting in those areas increases.

The collapse of Enron 20 years ago acted as a wake-up call to the accounting profession, and impacted several aspects of the industry: auditing, regulatory oversight, off-balance sheet entities, lack of strong internal controls and conflicts of interest between advisory and auditing services.

Starting with the passing of the Sarbanes Oxley Act, continuing with the introduction of new internal accounting control legislation in Europe, Asia and Australia, and culminating in the birth of the PCAOB in the US and other similar oversight boards in the EU, the public accounting profession had started to take a serious look at the role of corporate governance, and that of audit committees in particular. This led to a decrease in restatements and audit failures, until Wirecard in 2020. The scandal at the German fintech company only helped to emphasise that at the heart of the audit function is regulation and quality.

The new ISQMs, published by the IAASB at the end of 2020, are a positive development in this direction, and present firms with an opportunity to improve and harmonise quality assurance.

As Baker Tilly CEO Ted Verkade puts it: “Auditor independence continues to be important and we keep a close watch on the ongoing debate over audit regulation in the UK and, in the aftermath of Wirecard, are evaluating the threats and opportunities of different scenarios for our member firms.”

Baker Tilly’s approach is to rely on a standardised Global Audit Methodology, providing members with a platform for delivering consistent high-quality audits. Stephen Austin, CPA managing partner at Integra International member firm Swenson Advisors LLP, adds: “Wirecard will be an example that due diligence by top management is critical and that advisory services can impact the clarity of the audit performed. The lack of strong regulatory oversight allows fraud to perpetrate, coupled with the complexity of a digital world. The Big 4 are cognisant of this weakness and the need to bolster their independence rules and, perhaps, reduce the amount of advisory work done for attestation clients.”

One size does not fit all, and the pandemic has brought that into sharp relief. For example, Rhys Madoc, CEO at UHY International, is also concerned about the problem of maintaining quality and states: “Standards and robust communication are the development blocks for audit practices working internationally. For UHY, each member of our network is independent and, therefore, must be compliant with their local regulatory bodies. Additionally, we participate in the Forum of Firms and members must also comply with IFAC’s International Standard on Quality Control 1 which provides a framework for independence quality control.”

Similarly, Allinial Global president and CEO Mark Koziel focuses on the fact that increased scrutiny does not necessarily change what has always been done globally. He explains: “Regarding audit and non-audit work, the advantage of associations of independent firms like Allinial Global is that they can easily provide separation between the firms that provide audit and non-audit services.”

There is broad agreement among industry leaders that training and specialisation is key. As BDO’s global CEO, Keith Farlinger, states: “In pursuing high-quality audits, we are focused on hiring specialists who can support our engagement teams in serving our key clients, for instance in the areas of information technology security, valuation and sustainability.”

Dr Christian Gorny, CEO at ETL Global, goes so far as to say: “General practitioners will not survive.” This, rather chilling, statement also highlights one of the biggest challenges for the audit profession, especially post-Covid 19; how do you repurpose personnel for specialist tasks?

Of course, firms can hire their way to success, but the key may be in what Gorny goes on to say, that “adding technological capabilities to the academic education of our member firms’ audit professionals will clearly differentiate their audit services from those of the competitors and attract talented staff in the future. Member firms must grow external as well as in-house training, with continuous e-learning becoming more prevalent.”

PrimeGlobal CEO Steve Heathcote adds that its approach is similar, in “helping firms share good practices, by introducing them to technology through partnerships with data analytics and AI software companies, by providing training through our remote auditing courses, and by supporting secondments between firms.

This “sharing” of experience, by deploying individuals from one firm to another, points to a potential solution for the problem of redundancy which, ironically, is partly being driven by the spread of the same technology helping to propel digital training courses and partly by the need to develop specialist skills.

RSM International CEO Jean Stephens appears to underscore this trend by explaining: “As part of the roll-out of our global audit methodology and supporting platform, which scales according to client complexity and circumstance, we hosted hundreds of partners and managers globally in a series of ‘train the trainer’ sessions. We also facilitated a number of inter-firm secondments for our best and brightest auditors, prior to the pandemic hitting.”

The crisis has highlighted the value of audit. Audit reports are being scrutinised, and there is an opportunity to provide a wider range of assurance covering sustainability and governance matters. Audits require differing approaches; for example, PIEs have more restrictions and audit practices need strong technical and quality departments to advise on the best approach. They also need trained staff and robust, consistently applied audit methodology.

The major upcoming issue for firms is the introduction of the Quality Management Standards, which further encourage firms to proactively manage quality and ensure ethics and independence are addressed appropriately. In that process, it is possible that firms will proactively manage the risk profile of their audit client base which could lead to some entities looking for new auditors.

Training, retraining and a commitment to continual education seem to be a post-Covid priority, especially as the industry looks to avoid significant layoffs. Kreston International CEO Liza Robbins sums it up best when she says the key to success, going forward, will be learning how to work in a remote environment and “the appropriate exercise of professional scepticism”.

Advisory

Geopolitical and regulatory trends are, typically, interrelated. The current pandemic has thrown up significant economic, regulatory and societal challenges and events like these tend to offer excellent business opportunities.

The greatest demand for advisory services during the pandemic, with its disruptive impact, came from specific industries. It laid bare the vulnerability of globalisation and global supply chains as clients sought advice on how to navigate through the crisis – services such as financing, tax, government incentives, recovery, restructuring and human resource issues.

Of course, the pandemic was not the only show in town: other political and societal events and changes over the past year have also been keen factors.

“Last year, we saw accountants demonstrate incredible resilience, empathy, passion and delivery,” says Russell Bedford International CEO Stephen Hamlet. “Businesses looked at accountants as the front line to those under immense financial pressure, as much as the nurses who were looking after those medically affected.

“Following the initial fire-fighting and assisting clients with specific Covid-related stimulus packages, clients needed support with restructuring and strategic planning to ensure businesses survived.”

There has not been much regional variance. Markets have been influenced by the evolution of the pandemic and government interventions. The real difference has been between industries, with healthcare and hospitality at opposite ends of the spectrum. Madoc adds that an additional worry has been that cybersecurity continues to cause concern for their clients leading to increased demand in that area.

The spotlight, throughout 2020, has firmly been on the IT sector. Farlinger explains: “IT services have shown solid growth across all markets as firms have shifted to remote working, needing robust systems with up-to-date solutions. M&A and other corporate finance services saw an initial impact as the pandemic erupted in the spring of 2020, but has subsequently rebounded.”

Verkade adds: “M&A, transaction advisory, valuation and all technology-related areas have been in high demand on the advisory side, but from a corporate finance perspective, investment companies like private equity funds, have high levels of dry powder unallocated and are looking for investments. Even before large parts of the world were forced to work from home, companies were looking at some form of digital transformation, seeking guidance on systems upgrades and business intelligence help.”

Although each country’s situation is based on a set of specific circumstances and differentiated legal frameworks, firms from several jurisdictions have been collaborating to construct strong digital consulting capabilities with a constant exchange of knowledge and expertise.

The impact on revenue has been felt across the board. For example, globally, RSM grew by 9.2% in 2020, taking revenues to $6.3bn and consulting services saw the highest growth with an increase of 15%, Audit 10% and 6% in tax.

As Stephens explains: “North America and Asia-Pacific experienced the greatest growth, particularly in consulting services driven by significant demand for management and business consulting, IT consulting and risk management as middle market businesses responded to the pandemic, reorganised their business operations and rapidly digitised their infrastructure. Europe and the Middle East also saw solid growth. However, growth in the emerging economies of Africa and Latin America was more static as these markets have been somewhat challenged by a decline in international investment.” Koziel adds.

“Technology advisory was still strong in 2020, as many companies needed help moving to the cloud and putting additional controls in place. I’d include client accounting services in that category; it was a high-growth area for firms that embed advisory into their transactional client accounting.”

Broadly, however, other advisory services declined in 2020 as companies tightened up on spending and focused on must-have services. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is how the advisory market is playing out in the two biggest economies in the world, and the opportunities that this rivalry is creating. For lease accounting advisory services to implement a very complex standard in the US, Topic 842, takes a substantial amount of time and effort to identify and properly account for trillions of dollars of ‘off balance sheet’ liabilities and have them properly stated on the global corporate balance sheets.

Austin expounds: “The movement towards greater digitisation will continue to require additional expertise, with companies looking to improve their efforts to meet their customers’ expectations and yet still provide transparency for others to look into the accuracy of the accounting records. There is growing concern that big techs, which can own your cloud-based records, may not always act as friendly partners, and they are flexing their muscles in the US.”

Conversely, China, as it seeks to extend its global influence, has managed to propel Alibaba Cloud to the point that it is now the third-largest cloud provider for Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) in the world, and number one in Asia for cloud services, as compared with AWS in the US.

The Chinese appear to have bigger technological and monetary muscles to flex, and although audit is still dominant, hitherto deficient off-the-shelf technology solutions are emerging, and with them demand for advisory services.

Across the board, clients are demanding increased support with regard to the optimisation of their businesses, and assistance with the digitisation of business processes. With the profession implementating new technologies, as well as restructuring processes within existing business models, some projects are even triggering product innovation and new business models for clients.

Of course, until tourism resumes and travel bans are lifted there will be little that travel and hospitality firms can do, but when they do, it will be a matter of assisting clients with safety procedures and technology protocols in the new normal.

Taxation

Despite the pandemic, demand for advice in direct and indirect taxation remains strong as a consequence of globalisation in trade and manufacturing, even for small-scale businesses. Perhaps accelerated by the global emergency, 2020 has seen an increase in the pace with which online services have emerged, whether B2B or B2C, and this is creating potential new avenues of business for tax specialists.

Other factors that are leading to the increased demand for tax advisory services and support are the rise of nationalism, more stringent tax enforcement, the ubiquity of global tariff and trade disputes, increased digitisation of tax systems and processes, and an era of hyper-legislation. Unsurprisingly, there has also been universal demand for assistance in accessing grants, relief and government support packages in relation to the pandemic.

With air travel coming to an effective standstill, individuals who were typically globally mobile and had personal tax affairs organised accordingly, now find themselves having to address the implications of being ‘stuck’ in one country for a prolonged period. This potentially has permanent establishment implications, which has created further opportunities.

Taxation advisory has always been fraught with challenges. Some are ever present such as territorial variances depending on the domestic economic and political factors at play. For example, in the UK there has been increased demand for indirect tax services and structuring advice because of the 11th-hour uncertainty surrounding Brexit. Similarly, the impact of US tax reform in 2017, which made changes to individual income tax, estate tax, corporate tax, and even non-profit organisations, is still being felt, and with a new president in place, there is potential for further change on the horizon. As Farlinger opines: “Companies have changed their approach to tax governance in response to scrutiny from tax authorities. Tax assurance and risk management services are growing to meet this demand.”

Austin adds: “The highest number of questions we deal with are to do with VAT in the EU, transfer pricing and DAC 6 reporting issues. Our primary growth area is dealing with new tax regulations based on BEPS OECD.”

According to Stephens, RSM members recorded a 6% increase in revenue from the provision of tax services in 2020. This was predominantly fuelled by increased demand for tax advisory services addressing the complexity of a changing legislative landscape caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Demand also accelerated for tax advice regarding M&A opportunities for strategic deals and, in the latter part of the year, restructuring and transaction support as businesses looked for recovery opportunities.

Transfer pricing is an important area of focus at this time, with the drive by many governments to protect their tax base. Andrew Collier, director of quality and professional standards at Kreston International, believes that VAT and GST are a major drive for entities as there can be significant costs if supply chains are not planned appropriately. The exit of the UK from the EU is expected to increase demand for these services for businesses that operate within the EU and the UK.

MSI Global Alliance CEO Tim Wilson reinforces this view, stating: “We have seen an increased requirement of firms to engage in transfer pricing and to understand VAT and its equivalent in counties with which they do business.”

The other great challenge for the industry is in the digitisation of taxation regimes and services. Therefore, because jurisdictions have different tax requirements and regulations, a one-size-fits-all technology solution is difficult to achieve.

There are other potential obstacles, such as the specification of some software products requiring the updating of IT hardware, local providers offering favourable competitive pricing to global licenses, localised product training at times being difficult to achieve, the availability of advice, guidance and instructions in multiple languages, gaining buy-in from all offices to the benefits of a new software package, and ensuring that the software is up to date and capable of dealing with multiple types of business structures in multiple jurisdictions. How does one begin to deal with such a daunting list?

“Western economies often use similar packages which can be integrated through APIs,” states Heathcote. “US firms often partner with UK firms as packages are similar and the UK can make connections to Europe, despite Brexit”.

Gorny says ETL deals with the development and implementation of tax-relevant technologies by having an IT company, eurodata, as a 100% subsidiary in the ETL group and, thereby, seeking to achieve its tech goals efficiently and effectively in-house, without being dependent on external sources.

For anyone attempting to implement technological solutions, the starting point has to be to look for commonalities in processes. For example, the process of filing an individual tax return is similar across many territories, and that is a process that naturally lends itself to Robotic Process Automation (RPA) technology.

Research and development tax regimes have commonalities in their structure and claiming requirements, lending themselves to automation and eventually machine learning technologies. Of course, to make these connections it is important to have the right skill set within your teams, people who appreciate disruptive technologies but who also have an understanding of taxation. The industry is seeing a trend in the recruitment of tax technologists across the board, with one firm even reporting that every tax professional it recruits is matched with a technology recruit in the same team.

Additional priorities tend to differ in importance, depending on the region in question. For example, in North America recruiting and retaining the necessary talent to implement technology is key, while in Asia-Pacific it is about redefining roles and responsibilities. Automating routine processes and redefining workflows are one thing, but keeping up with the rapid pace of change across multiple jurisdictions is the real challenge. The key, for many in the industry, will be partnering with software companies to unlock the full potential that disruptive technologies offer in order to make the delivery of tax advisory services more efficient and more profitable.

In order to successfully implement new technologies, a common and collaborative approach is critical to ensure that, irrespective of the software and tools used, client service delivery is cohesive.

Recruitment

Attracting and integrating new talent is one of the greatest challenges that companies have to face in order to meet organisational needs, and this has not changed during the pandemic.

In practical terms, interviews and presentations cannot always take place in person and therefore have to be replaced by virtual solutions. Most ‘traditional’ face-to-face recruitment events, such as campus recruitment, can no longer take place. The main challenge has been to fill this gap with creative alternatives, whereby firms can continue to reach and attract new candidates, convey a sense of a firm’s culture, and ensure a positive candidate experience.

Across the profession, recruiting has softened slightly during the pandemic because many firms are unsure of what the future looks like. Globally, firms have struggled to find talent in the mid-level experience range, from manager to director level, but training, onboarding and getting new talent accustomed to the firm’s culture were the greatest challenges.

Accountants may traditionally have been viewed purely as numbers specialists, but a range of skills has always been valued. Professionals require a strong mix of numeracy, commerciality, technological adaptability, understanding of data science, and strong soft-skills such as critical thinking, compassion and understanding as they assess the human impact of business decisions.

In today’s environment, having a good level of emotional intelligence is extremely important. Hamlet alludes to this when he says: “I believe the term ‘traditional accountant’ will soon be something of the past; if not already. Firms are now seeking individuals from IT backgrounds to cope with the adaptability of new technologies, in addition to those with skills in strategy, decision-making, communication and problem-solving. Last year taught the profession that flexibility is key, and strong ability in advisory is vital. Those firms who were able to adapt, promptly and effectively, are those that did well.”

Farlinger agrees, adding: “Recruiting people with the right academic or technical backgrounds is still important, but we also focus on intangible skills, such as communication, collaboration, flexibility, creativity and management abilities. Also, the potential of a candidate, and their natural ‘fit’ with the organisation’s DNA is oftentimes more important than past experience.”

Hanging like a dreaded spectre over any discussion these days is the shadow of automation. Touching every sector of the economy, most of us no longer talk about ‘what if?’ rather than ‘what now?’ This is an important juncture for all societies, because it allows us to take practical, meaningful steps forward. Accountancy is no different from any other sector and, in combination with a strong legal and regulatory framework and attention to improving processes, the industry can take full advantage of the technological advances on offer.

Koziel talks about a studied approach to automation, stating: “While automation and AI may replace lower-level tasks, they create greater opportunity to become trusted advisors to our clients. I think it’s best to break this down by service line. For audit, automation could eliminate mundane, lower-level tasks, but having access to 100% of client data provides the opportunity to work differently and spend more time in risk assessment and auditing for the areas that matter most. Plus, blockchain will continue to grow and increase opportunities for firms.

“Similarly, as firms automate indirect tax filings, they are finding that clients have even more need for advisory. Finally, client accounting, potentially, has the greatest growth opportunity. A firm can offer automated transactions that eliminate client staff and then move upstream to offer additional data insights and advisory services.”

Digital investment should, therefore, be viewed as a medium- to long-term strategic benefit, as opposed to a necessary evil, which is how it has been perceived in the past. If anything, 2020 has shown just how essential technology is in conducting day-to-day business. Of course, automation, ML and AI will replace some processes and, ultimately, jobs. Often however, rather than replacing roles, technology is doing the tasks that free up people to add greater value in other areas.

As Robbins says: “Roles are not being replaced on a significant level, although the skill mix is changing with the need for more recruits to have digital skills. Digital investment is aimed at improving quality and effectiveness, including improving the client experience.”

Conferences and events

In the midst of the pandemic, virtual events have been all that are really possible, and many firms are finding that for the mental well-being of their staff, having these get-togethers is paramount.

Many have reaped the benefits of being able to work from home; it saves time and money, keeps people safe, and has enabled firms to explore new ways of doing things. Many of the meetings that had previously been conducted in person are proving to be as effective, or even more so, in a virtual environment, which could mean that once society moves back to in-person contact, that time could be used to evolve discussions to more sophisticated levels.

This situation has also given the industry the opportunity to open some network-wide activities to a far greater pool of individuals. Many organisations are in the process of planning hybrid events so they can maintain that level of increased engagement after the pandemic, and this change is likely to become permanent as technology improves.

Wilson affirms this when he says: “Virtual meetings have been really successful within MSI, especially our international conference which had 1,900 registrants, thereby increasing our reach into firms. These virtual meetings will continue in 2021 and beyond but will be augmented by physical ones in due course. The physical ones are essential to really build relationships and trust.”

Heathcote agrees, adding: “Our teams worked remotely before the crisis, so we managed well. We have got to know our members even better as partners are more accessible and we will offer a mixed model moving forward. We will continue to provide virtual opportunities to engage, targeting those with common interests to connect while in-person events will seek to create relationships that generate opportunities.”

The numbers that can participate online are mindboggling, as Stephens highlights when talking about RSM’s annual World Conference. She says: “We rebranded the event as the Festival of Reimagination, and what was previously available to just a few hundred was opened up to all 48,000 of our colleagues, resulting in phenomenal attendance levels, never before experienced.”

The big question, to which probably no one has a clear answer, is when in-person events, whether standalone or as part of a hybrid strategy, will resume. Culture and a sense of community are, typically, critical for the well-being of any individual and instrumental in delivering against a global strategy. Finding a new way to replace office culture with personal culture as we now connect, for the most part, from our homes and not as large groups in person, will be critical for the industry going forward.

Everyone is learning how to use their time differently and harness new technologies in order to stay connected. Undoubtedly, even when the pandemic is over, working routines will be different as a result.

Future Initiatives

On new initiatives that are ready for roll-out in 2021 to streamline operations, business referral and lead generation, Farlinger confirms that Rethink will remain ETL’S global framework and business model.

He adds: “Despite continued focus on digital acceleration and increased investments in marketing technology, we remain a people business. Throughout the firms you will see a continued focus on culture and purpose, and investment in our Advisers of the Future project, making sure our people have the right new skills to advise and support clients.”

Gorny concentrates on IT investment, mentioning that initiatives include the implementation of central services for member firms, the set-up of an IT hub for Eastern Europe as well as continued efforts in communications to increase visibility and market recognition.

Farlinger comments that 2021 will be a year to communicate the full implementation of the new lease accounting standard, and drive to provide low-cost solutions and methodology from lessons learned with public companies. He says: “The same is true for revenue recognition. Topics such as 606 and IFRS 15 must all be streamlined, and fees lowered. The rapid digitisation of accounting systems will require new and innovative tools to provide deliverables almost overnight”.

Stephens delineates a number of programmes, stating: “For 2021, one of our core objectives is to foster even greater collaboration on lead generation, as we leverage our business development programme and share knowledge and contacts in order to unlock new revenue streams. Following the appointment of our global COO in the second half of 2020, much work is underway to streamline and reimagine our business operations.

“In the fourth quarter of 2020 and running over the first half of 2021, we launched a global programme involving over 80 of our leaders, collaboratively working together to Reimagine Our Future and consider strategic areas for our ongoing development as we move forward.”

On technological initiatives, she adds: “The technological advances that were made in 2020 – for example our new global learning management system, the new client collaboration portal, and other data analytics tools – will continue to evolve to achieve even greater successes long into the future.”

Heathcote talks about operational improvements to PrimeGlobal’s digital capability for professionals across firms to find and make relevant connections, on profiling firms and professional’s expertise and automating back office functions.

For Wilson, the priorities lie with plans for a new website to assist member collaboration and with its referrals. MSI Global Alliance will also look to improve its L&D offering.

Madoc confirms initiatives surrounding virtual networking sessions with an increased use of dedicated mobile apps to support on-the-go and quick turnaround to clients’ needs and questions. The network will further aim to provide the ability to support cross-border client work and to be familiar with those who are undertaking the work.

For new initiatives to be set on course and achieve success within professional services or otherwise, the biggest issues are around how best to strike a balance, prioritise scarce resources for the most impact, understand where efficiencies can be made, and how to ignite new revenue channels.

Stephens’ thoughts on striking this balance and on leadership challenges that she has faced sum up the forward-looking views voiced by many participants in this article. She concludes: “In a crisis, ‘perform’ can quickly become ‘survive’, and that can instil fear and provoke knee-jerk reactions. Leaders have been faced with their toughest ever leadership challenges.

“It is very easy to convince yourself ‘I have to act; I have to move forward,’ but sometimes, in order to thrive and transform, one must slow down, recalibrate and reimagine. The paradox in the crisis is where to accelerate and where to pause – it requires a combination of both.”