The Doctor will see you now: how your practice can benefit from a time lord’s advice

Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s biggest global exports. So are there business lessons that can be learnt from the show?

“What we’ve seen over the last decade with the introduction of online accounting and the ecosystems around it is the biggest level of change in the shortest level of time we’ve ever seen in accountancy,” says Carl Reader, chartered accountant and author of The Franchising Handbook. “Accountants were doing these things manually for so long and there wasn’t much pace; that pace has picked up dramatically in the last ten years.”

If you had a TARDIS and could see into the future, where do you think that technology is going to go? “The time bomb, of course, is the imminent automation of tasks which don’t need humans to do them. Routine bookkeeping, routine analysis of the competition and accounting of financial regulations that are currently performed by humans with the assistance of technology.”

Key takeout: There is no reason why technology can’t take a bigger role – “other than the refusal of some accountants to let that happen, and the need for vendors to choose accountants as their channel to market.”

Technology revolution

Back in the 1960s, the Doctor encountered a race of aliens called the Krotons. Whilst not aesthetically the most attractive of creatures, in silver skirts and equipped with hoover parts for weapons, they did happen to be pioneers of machine learning.   

This is stage two of the technology revolution for accountants, Reader says. “The technology will not only identify and allocate financial transactions but will also be able to identify trends; not just within the business that’s been identified but also, the landscape.”

Key takeout: The machinery will do these things much sooner than a human would. “At the moment, an accountant has to look manually to identify when things have happened.”

Where does all this lead businesses?

“It’s leading to a real-time tax environment; certainly with the removal of cash that is going to happen. And potentially, a real-time financial reporting environment.” The hypothetical end situation “is that financial reporting could be published day-to-day, instead of waiting for it.”

For Reader, “advisory was a topic in the accountancy world 30 years ago and not much has happened. More than ever before, accountants really need to understand what advisory is. It’s not slightly more advanced compliance work. It’s a reason to use an accountant, rather than relying on technology.”

Does this not give problems for bookkeeping – might the profession find itself redundant? “Not at all,” says Joanne Routh, an AAT accountant. “I started off just doing bookkeeping and quickly realised that technology enables me to do a lot more – tax returns and management reports as well.” Routh is a qualified accountant, “but increasing automation is not a problem for bookkeepers – as long as you move with the times.”

Key take-out: Bookkeepers can broaden their scope by embracing the technology and thinking outside the box.

An awareness of diversity

Famously, Doctor Who regenerates every few years. Whilst this concept was invented to enable the lead actor to move on, it gives creative momentum to the series, keeping the brand fresh. And as Reader points out, it’s doing more than that.

“The move to a female Doctor demonstrates an awareness of the diversity that accountancy firms need to lead the charge within professional services,” he says. “It’s shocking that we have roughly 50/50 female at male at entry-level, but there are – to paraphrase – 60-year-old white men at the top. It’s a change the profession needs to keep working at; it will happen over time, but we need to keep driving it.”

What’s your USP?

And in terms of regenerating yourself with a rebrand? “The very simple answer is yes. In the customer’s eyes, you need to stand out. You need to think of ten other accountancy firms, and think – why should the customer choose you?”

“What’s your USP? What’s your particular difference? It might be something very simple like your processes being faster than the competition; you could have a turnaround promise, or a guarantee, or depth of knowledge in a particular specialism.”

As Doctor Who learnt to its cost in the 80s, question marks on collars or stunt casting comedians is not innovation. “When you are looking at how to stand out, see the difference between what is a trend for everyone, and what is a true differentiator.”

Key take-out: Innovation doesn’t need flashing lights. “But it does need to be something tangibly different in your service offering. That’s what makes you stand out if you want to exterminate the competition.”

Creating stand out

In the 1970s, besieged by rising inflation and the expensive move into colour, TV execs had a problem – making spaceships and futuristic settings was getting too expensive. But instead of cancelling the series, the creative decision was made to exile Doctor Who to contemporary Earth. Is there a lesson here for SMEs, who might think they don’t have enough money to stand out?

“There’s increasing consolidation from large accounting firms and brands, and at the same time, an increase in boutique firms – essentially a way of branding individuals who are really working by themselves,” says Reader. “And there’s increasing polarisation between the two.”

Boutique vs large corporations

But being boutique can work, Reader says, “if you remember the lessons about having a reason to stand out. You have the flexibility, you can be agile because you have no corporate structure around you, and you can find out where you want to focus yourself, make your name and drive it upwards.” It’s not easy or a quick win, Reader says, “but it’s the strength of the small firm; capitalise on it.”

In summary

Joanne Routh adds, “as long as accountants and bookkeepers embrace the new technology, it’s really easy to give more value to clients and keep them happy. You hear about some accountants not doing this, and still getting out notebooks.” For Routh, “I don’t understand that at all, in this day and age, when all the technology is here and now – it’s not sci-fi any more.”

Doctor Who returns New Years’ Day on BBC1 (and on a technological device near you).

Further reading:

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Related articles