Hands up for an easier life in practice!
The Practice Advisory Service (PAS) of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI) has been supporting the establishment and profitable development of practices across Ireland for many years. Hundreds of practices have benefited from advice and guidance in a whole range of practice and practitioner development areas. The popularity of the service reflects the experience and expertise of our people and the fact that we provide independent, objective and confidential advice that works.
But nothing ever stands still in business, and this is never more apparent than in the life of the practitioner. There are over 1,200 practising Chartered firms in Ireland, and whilst there are recurring issues and themes, it's probably not too far off the mark to suggest that there are 1,200 sets of challenges.
The re-branding of PAS as the new Practice Consulting Team (PCT) recognises the changing and challenging environment in which practitioners work, and reflects a renewed focus on ICAI member firms and the needs of practitioners across Ireland.
New name…same old degree of challenge for the practitioner
The Practice Consulting title may be new, but the level or degree of challenge facing practitioners is much the same - huge!
An extensive compliance agenda, pressure on revenues (in part from increasing audit exemptions), revisions to accounting standards, implementation of international auditing standards, impact of Sarbanes Oxley, the role of CRO, ODCE, and ‘Joe Public’'s’ ambivalence to the term ‘Chartered Accountant’, reflect just a sample of the macro or big picture issues that impact in a very real way on the life of a practitioner.
Closer to home, micro issues of access to appropriate students, downward pressure on charge-out rates, accounting for work-in-progress, increasing overheads in an inflationary economy and ultimately getting paid for services provided, can mean that practices get little or no time to give serious consideration to the macro issues, and the future direction and priorities for the business.
A vicious cycle indeed, and one that acutely impacts on practice profitability and practitioner stress levels.
New name…new focus
But the change from PAS to PCT is more than just that - it does represent a new focus by the ICAI on the challenges faced by practitioners, and the need to provide visible and accessible support as a means of increasing practice profitability and reducing practitioner stress levels.
Quoting from the ICAI’s Strategic Review published in March 2005: “the provision of a comprehensive practice advisory service must be a priority for members in practice….this is the very service that should not be outsourced, or left to external consultants…the ICAI should be providing this service itself, should be investing resources in this area as a matter of priority, and should be seen to be doing so.”
Hence the new focus on Practice Consulting, and hence the prioritisation of visibility and accessibility of services for members in practice. There are a number of services which the ICAI currently provides for members in practice that support the practitioner where it is most needed - that is in the practice concerned - including:
- Clarification of regulatory requirements and post-compliance review support
- Technical enquiry service on-line, which currently handles over 6,000 requests for information per annum, and is delivered in conjunction with our colleagues in the ICAI Representation and Technical department
- Facilitating resolution of taxation and legal enquiries, through contact with our panel of tax and legal experts
- CHARIOT - a fantastic technical online resource for ICAI members - and a range of additional practice pro-formas and 'help sheets'
- Day-to-day advice on practice management issues
- Support to the development of the 40 practice networks currently in existence across the country
… and we should continue to provide these services, most of which are essentially free of additional charge to ICAI members.
But there is an opportunity through the impetus provided by the Strategic Review to bring some new thinking to the practice support area.
New name…new thinking
If the Strategic Review is to bear fruit for practitioners, then it’s time for some new thinking. Over the coming weeks and months, practitioners should see significant changes to the way the Practice Consulting team works, and to what we provide.
In terms of the way we work, new assignment management procedures will come into effect from January 2006 to reinforce our commitment to excellent customer service. In addition, the new approach will highlight the importance we place upon understanding practitioners needs, and striving to meet or exceed your expectations.
In terms of what we provide, whilst the core fundamental principle of supporting practitioners remains unchanged, the nature or positioning of our support needs to be revisited and realigned. More specifically:
- The focus on compliance is very real for practitioners, but the ICAI's support should move upstream to represent a 'healthcheck' service that flags potential compliance issues before they arise, rather than picking up the pieces post-review … in this way, reducing practitioner stress levels
- Our advice on practice management should be clearly focused on practice profitability. At the end of the day, changes in practice management should translate into increased margins for the practitioner .and hence our consulting service should be passionate about practice profitability
- Ultimately, we need to proactively identify the sort of techniques, tools, and good practice that make the practitioner's life a easier and more rewarding - in every sense!
But that's only the start of our realignment. If the ICAI Practice Consulting team is to genuinely add value to your practice, then we need to be relevant and proactive, and be seen to be so - which places increased emphasis on innovation ... and in turn, increased visibility and accessibility. Ultimately, we will be driven by what practices want, but some new thinking on Practice Consulting services includes:
- Increased capacity for training and practitioner skills development in-practice, or even in-network ... and in so doing, provide a bespoke and tailored service reflecting real and immediate practice issues
- A focus on practice excellence, and supporting practices in the application of sound and value-adding policies and procedures
- A revamped practice benchmarking service, with increased depth of analysis on key practice parameters, including income levels, salary levels, overheads, profit margins
- The opportunity to enhance practice revenues through access to benchmark information on client businesses and sectors
- Recognition of the importance of mediation services and the unique role that the ICAI can play in helping to resolve areas of dispute between practitioners and clients, or between client businesses
- Helping practitioners to plan for succession, including ultimately potential transfer of the business
- Additional practice support tools online or in CD Rom format, (such as the recently launched 'Procedures for Quality Audit' which replaced SCAPs), and
- Increased communication incorporating a revamped and expanded Practice Matters (soon to be available in an on-line format)
In addition, the creation of ICAI’s Lifelong Learning resource for all members, presents new opportunities and supports for practitioners to develop their skills as a means of developing their business - and the two are intrinsically linked. There are a number Lifelong Learning initiatives planned that will have a direct bearing on practitioners, including:
- Clarity on the skills required to succeed in practice
- A framework and tools to assist practitioners to identify key skills requiring development
- Access to appropriate learning and development opportunities, including workshops, conferences and other events…..partly evidenced by a bigger and better CPD programme going forward
- Expansion of the practitioner mentor pool - or practice networks by another name!
- Access to appropriate professional and career development advice
- The opportunity to access technical and business skills development online
- The capacity to assess the impact - or real added value - of continuing professional development, and
- Ultimately, scope to apply an output-based approach to learning and development in line with international good practice
New name…new relationship with practitioners
Most of what is highlighted above will continue to be provided as part of your ICAI member's subscription … and therefore represents good value for your money. But not everything will be free of additional charge.
As the Strategic Review suggests, “the focus on providing members with added value should ensure that provision of services should be self financing”. So as long as we add value to your practice, you can expect to make an additional contribution to the ICAI. There is clearly a challenge for us in this statement, in that we must focus on adding value. But there is no less a challenge for members in practice to recognise that a charge for certain services represents an investment in the future of the ICAI, and is therefore essential.
This represents a new relationship between ICAI Practice Consulting and Chartered Accountants in practice - one that is perhaps more mature and balanced for both parties, and one that should contribute to the longer term well-being of practices and the ICAI alike.
Michael McDonnell is Director of Lifelong Learning and Support with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland.