Assurance Innovation by Design

On 7th December we hosted an Assurance Design Workshop for ICAEW members. The event is part of our Open Design Studio – a design-led incubator for new thinking and innovative ideas. We bring together a diverse group of Accountants and businesses to flex their creativity and to solve real and complex problems that create new opportunities for Accountancy in society.

This workshop explored the ways in which design-thinking can assist accountants to adapt the traditional audit skills to meet the needs of a changing world. We want to ensure that audit goes beyond the tick-boxing exercise it is perceived to be and to create the opportunities for audit and assurance to be judgement-based and reflective to better support clients. Service design offers a different mindset and new tools to complement accountants’ work so they can be able to do this.

With modern technology and the expectation of instantaneous information sharing, stakeholders want more from us. We need to engage with wider stakeholders in a deeper way than before to explore their needs and to gain knowledge about the client. We need to consider not only the service that we are providing to our clients, but what experiences we create for them and what value we are adding to them. Perhaps, we could dare to reframe the famous ‘expectation gap’ as innovation opportunity for the profession.

The main challenges that assurance providers are facing are the lack of creativity, flexibility and critical thinking, especially where services are process-driven or developed as a box ticking compliance exercise. There is also a lack of open and thorough communication internally where firms work in silos and externally with clients where we need to listen to the client more carefully and understand the business.

Design-thinking begins to overcome this challenge by understanding the needs and motivations of people. It is a human-centred approach that cannot work without open conversation and collaboration between assurance provider and client. There needs to be the space to experiment with new possibilities to bring about change and during this time, there needs to be acceptance that there is likely to be a trial and error period.

During the workshop, we explored some of the ideas behind service design and provided the opportunity for participants to apply these ideas to real businesses. We had the privilege of being joined by two guest businesses – Adnams Southwold and Chatham Financial Europe who facilitated group discussions. Participants had the opportunity to fact-find, listen and understand the business and it’s needs using the design-thinking principles explored during the morning session, with the aim of providing qualitative value to the client.

Some of the conclusions drawn from participation in this workshop included:

Understanding people within the business is key to any change and advancement
Employee engagement helps to drive the agenda forward
Difficult questions within audit are positive as they ensure we are doing the right thing
Design Thinking techniques can be used to probe clients and change the way you think about the client
As a result, providing a more client-focussed service with deliverables that the client perceives to be more valuable

As a result of these discussions around design-thinking principles, further questions that arose from the workshop included:

Would there be value in adopting benchmarking bodies for private assurance and sharing this information within the profession?
Should practitioners be visiting businesses as a minimum to better understand the culture of a business?
What is the role of universities in educating people for a profession in audit and perhaps in design-thinking?
How do we continue to adjust and re-design to ensure that the changing needs of a business continue to be met over time?

We will be running further workshops in 2017 in which we will explore the ways we can develop capacity for innovation and creativity in the profession. Please do get in touch if you are interested in joining the next event or if you would like us to help facilitate a session for your staff and clients.