Thursday 27 February 2020, London

Hosted by BDO at their Baker Street offices, the February London PM Forum was a fully booked session, bringing members together to hear how other professional service firms are approaching Innovation and Marketing

With not one, but two, fantastic speakers – Ben McGuire, Innovation and Business Change Director at Simmons & Simmons and Dan Francis, Head of Innovation and Digital at BDO – the session was split into two 20-minute presentations with a joint Q&A at the end. 

Ben McGuire: Innovation and Change in Professional Services
When Ben joined Simmons & Simmons around five years ago, his job description was somewhat of a blank piece of paper, the firm knew that they needed to ‘do innovation’, but what the objectives were exactly was yet to be figured out. Ben was the first person brought in to answer this question – and was the only person in the role.

Since then, Ben now has an army of innovation colleagues under him (sorry – I had to get that in somewhere, since Ben spent 15 years as an officer in the British Army) and Simmons & Simmons now has a very well-established innovation strategy in place. 

Innovation: the balance between creativity and execution
Ben discussed how innovation is a careful balance between creativity and execution – and very few organisations are good at both.  

He presented a thought-provoking case study, sharing a slide containing side-by-side photos of Steve Jobs of Apple-fame and Steven Sasson from Kodak. Whilst Steve Jobs is a household name, the room went silent when asked who Steven Sasson was; it turned out that Sasson built and patented the first digital camera. Unfortunately, it was a case of excellent creativity, but bad execution. Kodak simply lacked the processes and systems to adapt and so, instead of becoming the leader in the digital camera space, they licensed the patent and stuck to their traditional film heritage, allowing for the likes of Apple and other companies to clean up. 

Key ingredients for innovation
Discussion then moved on to the key ingredients for innovation, which Ben identified as follows:

  • Self-awareness: something which is critical for both the individual and the organisation
  • A creative culture and infrastructure
  • Trust: being transparent and easily understood, but also fair and merits based
  • Neutralising antibodies: dealing with those in the organisation who stop you from being creative (this can certainly be an issue in the law firm structure, where a partner who may be soon to retire will be reluctant to invest in something where the benefits may not be seen for five years)

What does innovation mean in a firm?
Whilst ‘innovation’ as a job title may be a recent phenomenon, Ben stressed that innovation is not a revolution, it is simply a normal business activity – and something that must be aligned to your strategy. For example, in the case of Simmons & Simmons, where the firm has goals such as growing in their key sectors and improving profitability, Ben and the team must make sure that everything they do is aligned to support this.

All innovation requires resources, time and money, and organisational support, so it’s important to remain focussed on driving forward the right ideas that will be benefit the firm. 

For Simmons & Simmons, innovation means two things:
1) Diversification (building new products and technology)
2) Service excellence (optimisation and training all fee earners in the firm’s service excellence standards, to not only help them be more productive, but to also better serve clients). 

A key takeaway from Ben’s session would be that, in order to ensure innovation is executed, any decision making must sit outside of the firm’s usual hierarchy – otherwise you run the risk of ending up like Kodak (although, of course, the two must still align and your innovation group needs to be accountable and transparent!) 

Dan Francis: Innovation at BDO
Next onto Dan’s session, bringing insight into innovation in accountancy firms after what we’d heard from Ben in legal. 

Dan is not only relatively new to BDO, but also to professional services, with a varied background in innovation, including stints at Nectar within Sainsbury’s and Barclays. This breadth of experience has highlighted to Dan that innovation sits in different parts of the business in different organisations; Barclays pulled it into their marketing and brand department, whilst at BDO it sits under technology.

Ideas vs. innovation
There’s a big difference between ideas and innovation, and Dan highlights this to the room. Ideas are free – you don’t have to do anything about them. But, once you start putting them into play, that’s when it moves from a possibility to something which could create value. Innovation starts as an idea, developed by introducing process and the ability to quantify – which in turn brings with it associated risk and costs. 

Innovation outside of professional services
Dan talked a bit around the innovation that we see every day in our lives outside of work. Computing power doubles every year and society is moving at a such a fast pace, that technology that exists now, couldn’t have been possible a mere few years ago. 

Google ‘Chihuahua or Blueberry Muffin’ and you’ll find a highly amusing selection of images of blueberry muffins and Chihuahua faces, which don’t actually look as different as you’d expect. A few years ago, image recognition on a computer would struggle to tell the different between the two, but today this is a much more sophisticated feature, which even sits within the libraries of our smartphones.

Another innovation Dan talked through comes from China, where fireworks originated. Now, they have innovated the traditional display to present the world’s first drone firework display. Robots have also taken over our homes in the form of robotic vacuum cleaners, which get to work whilst you’re out at work, and virtual assistants like Alexa and Google Home. 

The question: Why bother innovating? Well, because innovation creates value. 

Innovation at BDO
Alongside having 50 people in the firm who spend around 10-20% of their day job focused on innovation, BDO also introduced an ideation platform called Idea Drop; a tool which allows BDO employees to suggest new ideas for the firm to consider. Ideas can be posted, voted for, commented on and collaborated on within the platform, allowing everyone to feel that they can input on the firm’s innovation strategy. Dan stresses that it’s important to remember that with a platform of this nature, there will be a lot of ideas that the firm won’t want to take forward at this stage, but it’s important to always give a reason why it’s a no. 

One of the new innovations that came out of Idea Drop is an app called Coffee Connections – Dan joked that it’s a bit like Tinder for BDO – which allows employees to meet with more senior people in the company to help with their professional development. 

Dan wrapped up by telling the room that we all need to be working with technologies such as big data, AI and automation to drive forward innovation and transformation. He’s always thinking ‘what will BDO look like in the future?’ – and it’s safe to say that all firms could benefit from regularly asking themselves this question.  

Special thanks to both speakers and for BDO kindly hosting the session – it was an uplifting start to an otherwise very rainy Thursday morning! 

Holly McDaid
Business Development Manager, Acritas