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As part of The Learnovate Centre’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Ian Browne who is Deputy Director of Education at Chartered Accountants Ireland, the qualifying body for chartered accountants on the island of Ireland since 1888.
Chartered Accountants Ireland has around 180 staff catering to the needs of about 30,000 members and 6,000 students. It has departments in education, members, voice and advocacy, and even performs a regulatory function, whilst being regulated externally by regulatory bodies in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Ian joined Chartered Accountants Ireland as the Head of Assessment and Syllabus in 2015, spending four years closely studying the design and content of pre-qualification textbooks/syllabus and the assessment methodology before his promotion to Deputy Director of Education, a role which he says is more “all-encompassing and future-focused in terms of the student educational experience education and digital journey”.
He earned his undergraduate degree in Accounting and Finance from Athlone Institute of Technology and secured an MSc in Strategic Management at UCD’s Smurfit Business School. A qualified chartered management accountant, Ian achieved the fifth highest grade in Ireland for his Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) E3 qualification, later going on to serve in big corporations across a range of fields, including the meat, entertainment, and finance industries.
In 2007, he became a consultant with IPB Consulting, a switch that coincided with the financial crash and an increased focus on Ian’s specialist area of turnaround and growth strategies.
He found his vocation in 2013 when he was approached by Dublin Business School to teach a CIMA management accounting course. In his first year, his students had a 100 per cent pass rate, far above the global average pass rate of 30 per cent for this professional CIMA exam.
That success saw him rise to programme lead for the professional school and head of the academic department for CIMA and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). As a result of his impressive work at DBS, he was headhunted by Chartered Accountants Ireland.
What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?
My biggest lesson is that there’s always a need to innovate and move forward. Remaining relevant is hugely important. Nothing stays the same forever and you’ve got to evolve. As an educator, I’ve looked at where the education space has been for the last while and where accountancy is as a profession. There was a much bigger gap six or seven years ago in terms of what we were teaching versus the skills in the economy. We’ve been working to close that gap over the last four or so years but we’re trying to bring it even closer in alignment. We’re trying to assess what finance professionals will need in five years’ time and we’re working to bring that to them in the next two to three years.
What was the best advice you ever received?
There are three pieces of advice that I follow.
The first is to never ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. When we push hard in terms of driving people to innovate, what you’ll find is that if you want to lead, you need to be seen to be hands-on and leading by example.
Secondly, it’s all about speed to market. You might research for a decade to create the perfect product, but by the time you get to market the product could be irrelevant. Business is about being nimble and agile, getting to market and refining as you go.
And lastly, having the best ideas is one thing but you need to bring people with you on a shared journey. Take Frank Whittle, the English engineer and inventor. He was first to come up with the jet engine but couldn’t bring people with him, which is why the RAF didn’t have the jet engine flight operational before Germany. If he’d been a skilled people/change manager, they could have had the jet engine operational in the early 1930s, which potentially could have prevented the Second World War from breaking out. He was definitely the smartest person in the room but couldn’t bring anyone with him on a shared journey.
How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?
Early in my career, I worked in industries not known for being innovative. At Chartered Accountants Ireland, we’ve dispensed with the usual hierarchical structure within the educational area. We run a very flat, culturally innovative structure. It’s an entrepreneurial style that makes us agile and aids the kind of speed and innovation we’re looking for.
What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?
Managing teams is all about empowerment and creating a safe environment so people see that they can contribute in a meaningful way and that it’s okay to suggest that ideas that are out there and radical. Good ideas can come from anywhere. They don’t come from the top down. They can come down from any part of the business, the economy and sometimes they might not even be related to your industry. You’ve got to be open and receptive.
One thing I’ve always insisted on is making sure that I am never the smartest person in the room and having the best people around me. That’s the only way you’re going to achieve. You’ve got to invest in a team culture. We have a really good team structure at Chartered and that’s driven innovation in our department over the last five or six years.
What are your favourite tools and resources in work?
People. Everything is about people, process, and technology, but nothing is possible without people.
In what sectors and markets do you see untapped opportunities for Irish companies?
Ireland’s great advantage is that our small and open economy allows us to be very flexible. We’re able to pivot quite quickly in comparison to other countries. For example, in the American accountancy framework, there are 50 state bodies and they all feed into one. Ireland is much smaller so we can bring in change quite quickly at the learning level.
At Chartered Accountants Ireland, our curriculum and syllabus are in some areas very far ahead of other bodies. That’s aided by the fact that we are so small relative to other bodies and are therefore much closer to our key stakeholders.
There are opportunities in that across the learning market. Ireland is this small petri dish in which we can hotbed new ideas and then populate them externally. That allows us to punch above our weight.
From your experience, what are the current trends in learning?
Corporates understand the benefit of being in an English-speaking country with access to European markets. And in the learning area we have a duty of care to make sure there’s a constant supply of whatever skills and talent pools they need to run their business really effectively. That means that there’s an education and skillset resource pool provided to corporates so that those businesses can grow.
The great thing about Ireland is that some of the biggest innovation companies in the world have their European or world headquarters in Ireland. We work with our finance tech forum which is made up of the senior financial people in big corporates like Stripe, Facebook, Microsoft, and Oracle, and use that as a resource to monitor what’s happening in the market. Some of the larger firms like PwC, KPMG, EY and Deloitte are servicing those big corporates as well so the network just gets larger, which works for us as well.
Educators are making sure that, as a collective, we’re giving students, and businesses by extension, the most up-to-date and innovative ways of learning, as well as the most up-to-date skills across many different professions and vocations.
How should we prepare for the future of work?
We should take Singapore as a potential model. We need joined-up holistic thinking – where government, industry and the individual are all joined in a circle, and all move as one. We need to start looking at the IDA and Enterprise Ireland model and go further by identifying skills gaps and understanding what it will take to get people who could fill those gaps up to speed.
We probably do need as a collective to put more investment into our college system. I think it’s suffering from underinvestment and it needs a more innovative educational strategy from government. There’s an opportunity cost if we don’t tackle that now. If we’re first to market with this holistic approach, we’ll see the benefits of that. If someone gets there before us, that work is going to move elsewhere and we will struggle to attract it later. We need to raise our flag and say as a collective, both North and South, ‘There’s so much we can offer, on so many fronts’.
We need to be able to show in a tangible way that we have more people with the required skills who can add more value and turn the dial on long-term strategic performance in big businesses. Even if you’re turning the dial by one or two per cent on collective corporate output, that has a huge impact for the economy. And then we can reinvest that money back into our education system.
There’s no greater liberator or equaliser than education, as Martin Luther King once said. If we erode that, the outcomes won’t be as good over time.
What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?
Flying Blind: The 737 Max Tragedy and Fall of Boeing by Peter Robinson.
A lot of the book illustrates exactly what a company should not do. It outlines a change of strategic focus to meet short-term financial goals rather than long-term strategic benefits. There’s a lot of learnings in that book, and a lot of tragedy, but it really resonated with me. Boeing used the most up-to-date Harvard research of the day and went from a world leader in aviation and innovation to managing by spreadsheets and producing a long chain of events that ultimately led to the disaster of the Boeing 737 Max.
That’s what happens when a company which was a really big innovator, and was doing things correctly, loses focus. Airbus was very small in comparison but grew rapidly because it was all about innovation. Boeing was really successful but stopped focusing on innovation and started stripping the business of cost. The decline happened very slowly and was hard to recognise but ultimately had huge ramifications.
Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?
We’ve just completed a successful phase one project with Learnovate to assess the skills gap in the accountancy profession globally. It worked really well and will enhance our offering in the future. If we’re going to develop future syllabus and methodologies for our teaching going forward, we need to tap into a broad network dedicated to examining the science of learning. Learnovate has the network and expertise to get us up the learning curve a lot quicker. If we didn’t have it on our journey, we would have a less rich, holistic, balanced and validated outcome.
Why do companies in Ireland & NI need the support of a centre like Learnovate?
Most businesses are busy with business as usual. There’s not really any big department focused on the future. Learnovate has a whole thought leadership area that can be leveraged into your business in a fast and efficient way and allows you to focus on innovation and the future. It disciplines people to step back, look at the network and remind themselves, ‘We’re not on our own here’. We have limited resources so we can’t spend all our time focused on innovation and the future. These guys have the expertise so we try to tap into that as much as we can to enable us to do more, better and faster.
What does Learnovate do well?
It provides a structure for innovative thought processes and a validation loop for that as well. It has a global academic network, if they are not the right people to talk to about a query, you have access to the people who are. That collaboration helps you get to the right people and the right outcome quicker.
What impact has Covid-19 had on your organisation and on your customers?
While we had already started the process of moving our exams to an e-assessment platform about 18 months prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, we were only piloting about 10 per cent of our lower-level exams at that stage. The plan was to roll out the rest over three or four years. We quickly had to pivot in March 2020. We fast-tracked a lot of our plans. Everything went online.
The main reason we were moving to an e-assessment platform from a paper-based scenario was that we wanted to create assessments which would mirror what trainees do in the day job. We created a syllabus about four years ago that was very forward looking in terms of bringing in data analytics tools, data visualisation tools and RPA tools which were mapped to the kinds of products that our firms were using on a day-to-day basis. We were one of the first in the world to do that. That’s not the standard.
What have you/your organisation learned from your experience of Covid-19?
We had to go through a big transformation digitally in terms of putting our presence online. Prior to March 2020, all our education delivery was face-to-face. What we’ve learned is that while we’ve gone through a lot of change, we’ve managed to maintain a quality that’s robust and strong, and a pass rate that’s consistent. We’ve had to move fast but now we’re figuring out how to refine and improve all that going forward.
We had a massive leap forward in a short period of time. It was disruptive but not just in our area. We have a dedicated team who worked very hard to implement products and services that are as good as anything in the global market. We’re at the end of the beginning of this journey. Now we’re focused very much on how to get the most from our products and services in terms of giving people the skills they need so businesses get the maximum benefit of having chartered accountants in senior roles.
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