PKF Francis Clark is on a mission to get ahead of Making Tax Digital

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PKF Francis Clark is in the middle of Project Sky, a drive to get ahead of Making Tax Digital, while increasing cloud adoption. 

Project Sky is underway at PKF Francis Clark, and Darren Jasper is a key cog within it. On the surface, the project seems like a drive to prepare clients for Making Tax Digital (MTD). In reality, it’s much more than that – it’s a fundamental rethink of how the firm operates, encompassing the adoption of cloud technology, streamlining of processes and company-wide training.

The firm is one of the biggest in the south-west of England, with a catchment area that spans from Southampton to Land’s End. It employs more than 650 staff across eight branches in the region.

As head of ‘cloudsourcing’, Jasper faces a huge task. “We’ve got 20,000 clients shared across our 60 partners, and we want to have a really consistent approach,” he explains. “I lead the cloud team and we’re platinum with both QuickBooks and Xero, but it’s taken us 18 months to two years to reach that point. If we continue at that pace, it will probably take us about 30 years to be MTD-compliant.”

The ultimate aim of Project Sky is to be ahead of the curve, both with cloud adoption and MTD, by 2020. The team has its work cut out. “We need to turn MTD compliance into a bit of a sausage factory. We’ve had to take a step back from putting clients on the cloud and re-examine what our processes should look like.”

The project is still in its infancy, having been officially launched at the end of 2016. But the firm wasn’t complacent before that when it came to modernisation – cloud software was introduced five years ago, and Jasper started in his new role in February last year.

The project is more about joining up thinking across the firm and creating an overarching strategy for modernisation and compliance. Project Sky brings together PKF Francis Clark’s digital conversion plans, work on value-added services that stem from the cloud, and planning around personal tax and business services, based on what they might look like in five years. For Jasper, selling clients on the benefits of the cloud – his patch – is one of the easiest elements of what the team needs to do.

Gathering clouds “Cloud software has always been pushing along on its own, but MTD has given it a really big kick,” he says. “MTD and the cloud are separate, but they’re so intertwined that we’re using one to drive the other.

The cloud isn’t the only option for MTD, either.” The big concern for the Project Sky team is that clients might think HMRC, through MTD, is forcing them to move to the cloud. That means treading a fine line when it comes to client communications, Jasper explains; it’s about subtly linking the cloud and MTD in clients’ minds.

The aim is to get clients to think of the cloud as the solution when they think about MTD. “We want people to buy into the cloud based on the benefits it offers, not because HMRC has said it’s the way they should be working.”

Staff also need to be on board with the new way of working. The “strong HR message” that PKF Francis Clark is sending out emphasises plenty of training and upskilling across the board. Many staff are AAT-qualified or working towards that, and it’s still a core element of training for the firm.

Where trainees go from there, however, may well change. Rather than becoming chartered or certified, they may end up doing ATT, as the tax and accounting disciplines start to merge, says Jasper. “Tax and accounts are going to become far more closely intertwined,” he explains. “For example, which department’s responsibility is it to file the quarterly return?”

As PKF Francis Clark has been offering cloud-based and advisory services for a while, the change is not as drastic as it could have been. Project Sky will allow the firm to offer those services to more clients, with more staff involved in that work.

And, as cloud technology is adopted by more accountants and businesses, the work will become much more collaborative, says Jasper. “The software is simplifying accounts, so that business owners can take some of it on themselves,” he notes.

“A business owner is not going to think about how a T-account works. They think of it in terms of raising an invoice and paying a bill. If we can get clients working with Xero or QuickBooks, we’re then using the value-add bolt-ons on top of that. “It’s not a matter of just replacing the desktop with the cloud. It gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself.”

Photography: Louise Haywood-Schiefer 

Mark Rowland is a journalist and former editor of Accounting Technician and 20 magazine.

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