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Do accountancy’s Big Four deliver good tech advice?Accountancy’s Big Four are in the crosshairs of the UK government, which isset to crack down on their dominance of the audit process. New restrictions onthese firms – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – would likely redouble their focuson IT consultancy services, which have become increasingly important for thequartet in recent years. But do accountants really have the expertise toadvise organisations on technology transformation? Tech consultancy plays anincreasingly big role in the work of the Big Four accountancy firms. (Photo byKoshiro K/Shutterstock)Under the UK government’s plans, the Big Four would be required to sub-contract auditing work to smaller companies and may face a cap on the numberof FTSE 350 businesses they can audit. The changes were proposed in the wakeof high-profile companies such as Carillion, Thomas Cook and BHS collapsinginto administration with large debts, despite having previously been given aclean bill of health by their auditors. The Big Four may also be required toseparate their auditing businesses from other services, such as IT consulting,to avoid conflicts of interest.The UK is not the only regulator with a keen interest in the audit process.New rules were introduced in the EU in 2016 to foster a more dynamic andtransparent audit market, although the European Commission has launched a newstudy into whether these changes are working. A report released in Januaryrevealed the Big Four are still ruling the roost across the bloc. “Thedominance of the Big Four in the majority of member states, combined with thehigh proportion of revenue from non-audit work, could affect theirindependence, the level of audit fees and audit quality,” it states.## Why do the Big Four care about tech advice?With their audit work under increasing scrutiny, technology consulting couldbecome even more important for the Big Four. Consulting across a range ofbusiness disciplines is already a major revenue stream – last year bothDeloitte and PwC earned more from consultancy business units than they didfrom any other.In technology, this means advising businesses on digital transformationprojects such as cloud migrations and the adoption of new tools and processes.Demand for this type of consultancy is likely to grow as businesses adjust tolife after the Covid-19 pandemic. “Since the summer we have seen demandincrease month by month as clients accelerate the transformation of theirbusinesses, embed new technologies, overhaul their business models to delivernet zero and reconfigure their supply chains,” PwC’s UK chairman Kevin Elliswrote in the company’s most recent annual report.While the growing importance of consultancy is driving the Big Four’s interestin tech, clients are also putting greater emphasis on the digital expertise oftheir accountants, says Narayanan Vaidyanathan, head of business insights atindustry body the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).Indeed, the role of the accountant is going through a “huge re-evaluation,” hesays.“We’re seeing much more of a role for understanding emerging technologies,processes and digitisation; and what these mean for the business model of anorganisation, as well as the need for understanding wider issues such assustainability.”Vaidyanathan adds an understanding of tech is important for accountants andCFOs when it comes to influencing decisions about new systems. “The financeprofessional is looked upon as someone who can bring a balanced lens, who cansee the value the technology adds but can also think about the return oninvestment and the implications for risks like data confidentiality,” he says.## Big Four tech advice: is it any good?Alongside their consultancy work, all the Big Four firms are prolificproducers of tech reports, covering myriad emerging technologies andpredicting future trends around the adoption of things like 5G and quantumcomputing. “They release these reports in the hope their clients or potentialclients will read them and contact them,” says Joe Robertson, an accountantwho runs Big 4 Accounting, a website and podcast that tracks the progress ofthe Big Four and offers advice to people applying for jobs at the companies.“In reality, clients don’t really pay attention to that stuff, and the mainaudience for it is the press.”While the reports are designed to prove their technology credentials,Robertson says the quality of advice clients get from the Big Four issometimes questionable, and that the companies rely on their size and existingrelationships to put them in pole position to get new business. “They’re notrespected as tech consultants in a lot of instances,” he says. “But oftenthey’re already in the building and the CEO already has their business card,so they might end up using them regardless.”Robertson says Big Four firms can often respond more quickly to client needsthan a specialised tech consultancy. “These are some of the biggest businessesin the world, so you know you can always call them up and they’ll be thereready with a ton of people to help you,” he explains.## Tech, accountancy and the Big Four: the futureAcquiring smaller tech consultancies is an important strategy to help the BigFour boost their credentials says Robertson, who has worked for two of thecompanies during his career. “You see this happening in countries all over theworld,” he says. “Key areas are things like AWS and Salesforce implementation.Once they learn clients want a service, they quickly either recruit the peoplethey need or buy in a consultancy firm.”In January, Deloitte acquired Hashedin Technologies, a Texas-based cloudengineering consultancy. It is the 14th cloud-related business the firm hassnapped up in the past four years. Before Christmas, EY closed a deal to buyZilker Technologies, a customer experience specialist working with clientsaround the world.For many accountants, Robertson says the lure of working for the Big Fourremains undimmed. “They pay the most and work with the biggest clients,” hesays. “A lot of people want to become a CFO, and being at a Big Four firm isthe quickest way to get there.” Working for one of the quartet can also be aroute into tech-related roles that are becoming increasingly popular asbusinesses embark on digital transformation programmes. “Accountants areincreasingly using technology to create new roles for themselves in areasranging from advising on cloud integrations to broader oversight of digitaltransformation,” says the ACCA’s Vaidyanathan. “They don’t always need to knowthe ins and outs of the tech itself, but they can use their knowledge of afunction, organisation or industry to transform its delivery model, with techlayered on top.”Vaidyanathan adds that it seems likely the Big Four and other accountancyfirms will continue to evolve the services they offer to match the changinglandscape. “If you talk to the old guard, they’ll tell you that when PCs andspreadsheets emerged in the 1980s everyone thought the traditional role of theaccountant was dead,” he says. “But accountants have embraced them andthrived. Since then they’ve embraced increasingly sophisticated ERP systems,internet, cloud, and now they’re getting ready for cognitive technologies likeAI. Ultimately the world will always need people who can partner effectivelywith technology.”# Join Our Newsletter## Want more on technology leadership?Sign up for Tech Monitor’s weekly newsletter, Changelog, for the latestinsight and analysis delivered straight to your inbox.### News editorMatthew Gooding is news editor for Tech Monitor.