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Management

Barrie O’Connell considers how Ireland can achieve continued success in international financial services after three decades of momentous growth. As a semi-senior auditing investments and subscriptions in the offices of Chemical Bank on Lower Abbey Street in the late 1990s, I knew little of the influence international financial services (IFS) would have on my career as a Chartered Accountant. Ireland has built a thriving IFS industry over the last three decades. This success can be measured using several metrics, some of which are outlined in Table 1. So, what are the factors behind this success? In my view, Ireland’s strategic approach and talent have been the two key enablers. Chartered Accountants have played – and will continue to play – a key role when it comes to talent. The ‘Ireland for Finance’ strategy In 2019, the Government of Ireland launched the Ireland for Finance 2025 strategy. The strategy was developed by the Department of Finance, with input from a range of stakeholders, and is part of the current Programme for Government. It contains four pillars: Operating environment; Technology and innovation; Talent; and Communications and promotion. The Ireland for Finance 2025 strategy is aligned with other key Government strategies, including the National Development Plan and the National Digital Strategy. A refresh of the strategy will likely be undertaken after the COVID-19 pandemic to account for the permanent impact on the future of work, the changing operating environment, and the intense competition from other IFS investment locations. Each year, the Department of Finance also publishes an action plan and an update on actions. This allows each action to be measured and provides accountability, as each action has an owner. The IFS team within the Department of Finance plays a significant role in supporting the strategy’s implementation. There is also a dedicated Minister of State for IFS at the Department of Finance, which ensures continuing focus on the sector. Coincidentally, the current Minister, Sean Fleming TD, is a Chartered Accountant. Operating environment Ireland has enjoyed great success as an IFS location for a long time. With new entrants relocating here due to Brexit, there is the prospect of more to come. This will remain the case while there is uncertainty around UK firms’ ability to achieve financial services equivalence and, thus, access to EU markets post-Brexit. However, the environment for IFS is increasingly competitive. Industry participants continually face pressure to optimise their business by delivering new and innovative products and exploiting process and location efficiencies. They must deliver on these issues while serving their customers’ needs and ensuring the global financial system’s continued stability. The industry is more technology-intensive than ever, and artificial intelligence (AI) and automation present both opportunities and challenges for Ireland. We must continue to position ourselves as a location that is open to providing an innovative, supportive, and dynamic environment for companies that seek to leverage our expertise and history in technology and financial services. After COVID-19, other countries will redouble their efforts to attract investment. As IFS is a mobile sector, Ireland must be agile and adapt quickly to the new environment. The IFS sector has been remarkably resilient over the last year, and I am impressed by how the sector adapted to remote working and continued to deliver for customers. This resilience is a key differentiator, and the collective ability to solve issues gives Ireland credibility and trust in a global marketplace – something that is noted internationally. Track record The IDA and Enterprise Ireland have both contributed to the development of the country’s IFS industry. I am continually impressed by the IDA’s work with overseas companies and Enterprise Ireland’s work to create opportunities for indigenous companies to operate successfully from Ireland. Indeed, these organisations are the envy of many other countries globally. Irish Funds is another excellent example. It works relentlessly at an international level to promote Ireland as a funds location, and the quality of the content at its events is compelling and demonstrates some of the best qualities of ‘Team Ireland’. Meanwhile, the European Financial Forum, usually hosted in Dublin Castle, was hosted virtually this year. It is another superb showcase of what Ireland offers in IFS to companies operating globally and is supported by an effective regulatory environment with a fully independent Financial Services Regulator. The development of the “IFS Ireland” brand has been a crucial first step in building an integrated offering across different sectors. We must now market Ireland with consistency and in new and innovative ways.  The secret sauce Ireland’s key asset is its people and talent. Ireland has a well-educated, highly-skilled, flexible, internationally diverse and multilingual workforce. Our demographics are favourable, with 33% of the population less than 25 years old and over 50% of those between 30-34 holding a third-level qualification. Chartered Accountants’ skills and attributes are a good fit for this sector, and I am aware of so many Chartered Accountants Ireland members who have cultivated successful careers in IFS – not just in Dublin, but throughout Ireland. The executive and senior management teams in IFS in Ireland, many of them Chartered Accountants, are a vital ingredient in our competitive advantage. They advocate with head office, look to develop and grow the offering based in Ireland, and are prepared to manage global operations from Ireland – and often exceed expectations when they do. Many have very senior global roles in large IFS organisations, and we don’t always acknowledge them and their relentless focus on expanding their organisation’s footprint in Ireland enough. For example, the recently announced acquisition of GECAS by AerCap, headquartered in Dublin, is a fantastic transaction that demonstrates Ireland’s position as a world leader in aviation finance. Caution needed Now is the time for Ireland to redouble its efforts. Some commentators suggest that the future of work will alter the relationship between talent and location, but I am inclined to challenge this hypothesis. In my view, where the executive and senior management teams are based will continue to be a key consideration for an organisation’s location. With accelerating disruption and digital transformation impacting the IFS sector, Ireland must be aware and adapt accordingly. In the coming years, protecting existing jobs may well be as important as growing the number of those employed in the sector. Ireland must therefore invest in education and training to ensure that workers stay relevant and productive and harness the strengths of Ireland’s technology sector to position Ireland as a leader in technology-based financial services and platform development. Chartered Accountants Ireland’s FAE elective in Financial Services is a welcome development in this regard. Action Plan 2021 The IFS Action Plan 2021, which is available to download at www.gov.ie, outlines several priorities in this regard, including sustainable finance and fintech. These areas have huge growth potential and present an opportunity for Ireland to take a leadership position globally. Sustainable finance and environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are strategically important to all companies. It is fitting that the Minister highlighted both as critical areas of focus for 2021 and beyond. Ireland’s recently enacted Investment Limited Partnership (ILP) legislation was an objective in the action plan for several years and has the potential to deliver significant growth in the private equity area. The Central Bank of Ireland also issued a stakeholder engagement consultation in recent weeks, and this will be a key focus for the 2021 action plan. Cause for optimism IFS is a vital element of Ireland’s overall economic strategy. Like all strategies, the strategy for IFS must be continually reviewed and adapted as the world evolves. Given our talent, flexibility, and drive, there is much cause for optimism while resisting complacency. It is incredible to see what started in the IFSC now present in every corner of Ireland, from Killorglin to Letterkenny. Yes, IFS in Ireland will need to change, adapt and continue to improve. But for newly qualified and experienced Chartered Accountants alike, the opportunities in IFS are almost limitless. Go and explore them for yourself. Barrie O’Connell is Partner in KPMG and Chartered Accountants Ireland’s representative on the Ireland for Finance Strategy 2025 Industry Advisory Group.  

Mar 26, 2021
Management

Neil Hughes outlines the survival options for small- and medium-sized businesses as the ‘next normal’ approaches. In general, 2018 and 2019 were good years for Irish business. Many companies entered 2020 with stronger balance sheets, relatively low debt levels, aggressive growth targets, and optimism – particularly in the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. By Q2 2020, however, firefighting due to COVID-19 restrictions quickly soaked up all available management time and resources. Growth strategies were shelved, and survival was prioritised. Government supports were immediately made available to companies severely affected by the pandemic. Figures released by Revenue in February 2021 show that the State paid out a total of €9.3 billion in 2020 between the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (€5.1 billion), Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (€2.8 billion) and the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (€1.4 billion). Seventy thousand companies have availed of the Revenue Commissioners’ Debt Warehousing Scheme, at a total cost of around €1.9 billion. These supports, along with the forbearance provided by financial institutions in Ireland, have helped prevent a tsunami of corporate insolvencies. The concern, however, is if post-pandemic those companies that ultimately need help the most will not reach out and avail of the supports and processes available. Overcoming the stigma It is regrettable that, historically at least, the use of formal corporate insolvency mechanisms to restructure struggling businesses has been viewed quite negatively by the Irish business community. The inference is that such businesses were somehow mismanaged when, in reality, this was often not the case. Companies can fall into financial difficulty for various reasons. Factors outside the control of company directors can necessitate a formal restructure rather than the terminal alternative of liquidation. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, a previously successful business operator, through no fault of their own, can find themselves saddled with an unsustainable level of debt and risk becoming insolvent. While government support measures were necessary to prevent widespread corporate failures and potential social unrest, for many companies, these actions may have simply delayed the inevitable and kicked the can further down the road. In most corporate insolvencies, there is an expected level of pressure for money that the company does not have, which precipitates a formal restructure. This pressure has been temporarily released, but the creditor strain will inevitably build again when trading resumes. ‘Zombie’ companies Low insolvency numbers for 2020 are therefore misleading. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that several companies have ceased trading, have no intention of reopening and, in some instances, have handed the keys of their premises back to landlords. However, these ‘zombie’ companies are not included in the insolvency statistics, as they continue to avail of government supports and will be wound up whenever the supports end. While helpful, the subsidies and supports do not cover the entire running costs of a business, and many companies continue to rack up debt as their doors remain closed. These debts may seem insurmountable, but there is hope. The Great Recession vs the COVID-19 crisis This current recession is in stark contrast to the ‘Great Recession’ that resulted from the banking crisis of 2008. Back then, there was a systemic lack of liquidity in the market due to the collapse of Ireland’s banking sector, which left SMEs with little or no access to funding. This time, there are several re-capitalisation options with banks (including the new challenger banks) in a position to provide funding, especially through the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland (SBCI) Loan Scheme. Many private equity funds are also willing and ready to invest in Irish businesses. After the pandemic All the while, the Government can borrow at negative interest rates to stimulate growth and recovery. With the vaccine roll-out, we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This begs the question: what will happen when the pandemic is over? There are several key points to note: Consumer behaviour: it is reasonable to assume that a large portion of the population will revert to normal. This could generate a domestic economy similar to the rejuvenation that followed the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the end of the First World War. There is certainly pent-up demand and savings (deposits held in Irish financial institutions were at an all-time high of €124 billion in late 2020). Unfortunately, a portion of society will change their consumer habits forever due to COVID-19, which will have a detrimental effect on businesses that find themselves on the wrong side of history and unable to survive the recovery. Government action: how the Government reacts will have lasting repercussions. Difficult and unpopular decisions are likely required to pay for the ever-rising cost of the pandemic and its restrictions. Such choices may result in an increase in direct and/or indirect taxes, with less disposable income circulating in the economy. The UK Government has already made moves in this direction with its 2021 budget. The Revenue Commissioners: Revenue’s intended course of action is currently unclear in relation to clawing back the €1.9 billion of tax that has been warehoused or how aggressively it will pursue Irish companies for current tax debt after the pandemic is over. Early indicators are that Revenue will revert to a business-as-usual strategy sooner rather than later. Banks and other financial lenders: the attitude of Irish banks and financial institutions to non-performing loans remains to be seen. Banks have been accommodating to date and worked with, rather than against, borrowers – a criticism levelled against them in the wake of the 2008 banking collapse. Personal guarantees provided by directors to financial institutions to acquire corporate debt, particularly in the SME sector, will have a significant bearing on successful corporate restructuring options. The attitude of landlords: landlords in Ireland are a broad church, ranging from those with small, family-operated single units to large, multi-unit institutional landlords or pension funds. Landlord-tenant collaboration is essential for stable retail and hospitality sectors, and in the main, rent deferrals were a foregone conclusion during the various lockdown stages of the pandemic. However, these rent deferrals still have to be dealt with. The attitude of general trade creditors: in certain instances, smaller trade creditors in terms of value have been the most aggressive in debt collection and putting pressure on businesses to repay debts as soon as their doors reopen. Companies with healthy balance sheets and those that managed their cash flow prudently will be the ones to come out the other side of this pandemic when the government supports subside. Businesses will need time to: Assess the post-pandemic consumer demand for their products and services;  Assess their reasonable future cash flow projections; Agree on payment arrangements for old and new debt; and Make an honest assessment of whether they will be able to trade their way through the recovery phase. For those who have been worst hit, however, all is not lost. Ireland has some of the most robust restructuring mechanisms in the world, with low barriers to entry and very high success rates. The fallout can be mitigated if company directors take appropriate steps. Restructuring options When it comes to successful restructuring, being proactive remains the key advice from insolvency professionals. Too often, businesses sleepwalk into a crisis. Options narrow if there has been a consistent and pronounced erosion of the balance sheet. Those who act fast and engage with experts have the best chance of survival. 1. Examinership There are various restructuring options available, but examinership is currently most suitable for rescuing insolvent SMEs. The overarching purpose of examinership is to save otherwise viable enterprises from closure, thereby saving employees’ jobs. In 2019, liquidations accounted for 70% of the total number of corporate insolvencies in Ireland, and examinership only accounted for 2% of the total. It is plain that a higher portion of those liquidations could have been prevented, jobs saved, and value preserved if an alternative restructuring option like examinership had been taken. There are only two statutory criteria for a company to be suitable for examinership: 1. It must be either balance sheet insolvent or cash flow insolvent. It cannot pay debts as and when they fall due; and It must have a reasonable prospect of survival.  The rationale for examinership in a post-pandemic environment is therefore clear. Companies saddled with debt will likely meet the insolvency requirement, and historically profitable companies that have become insolvent due to the closures associated with the pandemic will pass the ‘reasonable prospect of survival’ test. Once appointed, the examiner must formulate a scheme of arrangement, which is typically facilitated by new investment or fresh borrowings. The scheme will usually lead to creditors being compromised and the company emerging from the process solvent and trading as normal. 2. The Summary Rescue Process One of the main criticisms levelled at examinership is the perceived high level of legal costs required to bring a company successfully through the process. To address this perceived issue, in July 2020, An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar TD, wrote to the Company Law Review Group (CLRG) requesting that it examine the issue of rescue for small companies and make recommendations as to how such a process might be designed. The CLRG’s reports in October 2020 recommended the ‘Summary Rescue Process’. It would utilise the key aspects of the examinership process and be tailor-made for restructuring small and micro companies (fulfilling two of the following three criteria: annual turnover of up to €12 million, a balance sheet of up to €6 million, and less than 50 employees). Such companies constitute 98% of Ireland’s corporates and employ in the region of 788,000 people. A public consultation process is now underway to finetune the legislation. Here is what we know so far about the Summary Rescue Process: It will be commenced by director resolution rather than court application. It will be shorter than examinership (50-70 days has been suggested). A registered insolvency practitioner will oversee the process. Cross-class cramdown of debts will be possible, which binds creditors to a restructuring plan once it is considered fair and equitable. It will not be necessary to approach the court for approval unless there are specific creditor objections. Safeguards will be put in place to guard against irresponsible and dishonest director behaviour. A proposed rescue plan and scheme will be presented to the company’s creditors, who will vote on the resolutions. A simple majority will be required to approve the scheme. The Summary Rescue Process will be a huge step forward. The process of court liquidation has been systematically removed from the court system in recent years in favour of voluntary liquidations. This new rescue process will bring a similar approach to formal restructuring, allowing SMEs greater access to a low-cost restructuring option akin to a voluntary examinership. It will give more hope to companies adversely affected financially by the pandemic that options exist for their survival. Neil Hughes FCA is Managing Partner at Baker Tilly in Ireland and author of A Practical Guide to Examinership, published by Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Mar 26, 2021
Management

Eric O’Rourke explains why organisations should not fear the process of corporate cultural change, and how internal audit can play a pivotal role.“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. When it comes to changing a company’s culture, this quote from Peter Drucker is something I, as an Internal Auditor, have heard often over the years.However, culture can be viewed as amorphous and, therefore, difficult to define and alter. For an organisation’s governance structure (i.e. the board and senior executives), the inability to measure an existing corporate culture can create an apprehension and some degree of fear around how to best progress to a desired culture.Culture matters for any organisation but from a financial services perspective, a positive culture drives conduct by promoting the benefits listed later in this article and protecting against conduct risk. A positive culture provides a guiding light for an organisation, particularly when it faces challenges and difficult choices.Culture guides what you should do, not what you can do. It helps organisations do the right thing and, in the context of financial services, this involves restoring trust and protecting the industry’s social license.In May 2020, the representative body for the funds industry in Ireland, Irish Funds, published the ‘Irish Funds Culture Guidance Paper’ for its members. The paper aims to provide member firms with guidance on key themes and good practices to measure, monitor and embed culture. It considers the critical factors to take into account when implementing cultural change. They include defining culture (present and desired) in addition to metrics that can be used to measure/monitor culture and related changes.Existing culture vs desired cultureFor all organisations, the first step is to evaluate the existing culture while identifying the board’s desired culture, as its members effectively lead the organisation’s strategy. Based on this evaluation, the board can then decide whether a culture change programme is required.Employees at all levels should be engaged to ensure that the echo from the bottom matches the tone from the top. The tone from the top is critical to ensure that culture and values are articulated and hence, can be measured. A ‘cultural roadmap’ should then be created. This task should be championed by the organisation’s appointed culture champion or chief cultural officer from the senior leadership level.The advice of Internal Audit (IA) should also be sought at the outset, as the role of IA extends across organisational structures and can provide unique insight.The art of measurementTo measure culture, multiple cultural touchpoints should be amalgamated to give a full picture to key committees and the board. A ‘corporate culture report card’ should also be compiled every quarter and presented to the board by the cultural champion, as culture change is a long process. The report card should be reviewed thoroughly, and corrective action taken if required.Below are some of the metrics that were published in the Irish Funds Culture Guidance Paper. Evidence from the suggested mechanisms should form the basis of the corporate culture report card (see Table 1). Furthermore, IA should audit these metrics as part of any thematic culture audit, or question auditee culture as part of any audit undertaken.Benefits of a considered and defined cultureMany benefits accrue to organisations that embrace a healthy culture, including:Sustainable growth and improved profitability;A more engaged and motivated workforce;The ability to attract and retain top talent;Better and more transparent decision-making;Responsiveness to change and risk;Improved customer satisfaction; andA corporate image and identity that others aspire to.So the critical question is: what culture is desired? Determining the desired culture and measuring the existing culture are the first steps.In closing, I note the words of Dale Carnegie: “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage”. The time is ripe to review and possibly enhance your organisation’s corporate culture. Do not fear change; instead, focus on what can be achieved.Eric O’Rourke ACA is Head of Internal Audit at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Group Global Asset Services and a member of the Irish Funds Internal Audit Discussion Forum.

Sep 30, 2020
Management

John Kennedy explains how Chartered Accountants can help their clients break free from the shackles of their current challenges and, instead, work towards a brighter future.As we continue to deal with the implications of the untamed coronavirus, we have all been forced to pause and take stock. Many things we historically assumed can no longer be taken for granted. We, therefore, need to learn new habits, develop new routines, and adopt new ways of thinking.At the core of that change is the need to secure our future by identifying, and wisely investing in, our most precious assets. Take a moment to pause and think of the most valuable assets your practice holds – what are they?In my opinion, there are two: attention and energy. Your future success will be determined by your ability to take control of your attention and energy and, in turn, by how you guide your clients to invest their attention and energy where it is most productive and provides the greatest return. You and your clients must stop wasting your attention and energy on unproductive, corrosive thinking.Corrosive and constructive thinkingThe world is flooded with corrosive thinking right now. And, like anything with massive oversupply, it has no value. Corrosive thinking keeps you in a closed loop of negativity, consuming your attention and energy by focusing on the missteps, the problems, and how costly they will be. You will get no positive return on the attention and energy you invest in corrosive thinking.Constructive thinking, on the other hand, is entirely different. It is scarce and, therefore, has an unusually high value. Constructive thinking moves you away from worrying about how you and your clients reached this difficult place and, instead, focuses your attention and energy on reaching a better place. To move from A to B, however, requires the wise and judicious investment of your vital resources.The key is to take control of your future decisively. This is not an invitation to undertake some form of positive thinking or encourage you to merely wish or hope for better times. It is quite the opposite. It is a specific and practical skill that will enable you to create a clear image of a better future and identify the steps to reach that destination.The kitchen testNeuroscience has helped us understand how to harness the power of our brain and use our capacity to think more effectively. If you don’t take control of this capacity, your brain can easily work against you or steer you off-course. But when you know how to harness the power of your brain and focus it on success, profound change is possible.Achieving the success you seek always begins with creating a clear image of that success. Let us put it to the test.Take a moment to think about a room you are familiar with. Your kitchen is a good place to start. As you develop a clear and vivid image of your kitchen, your mind will work with you and help you set out in great detail the many specific aspects of your kitchen. You will be able to give this image real substance – the colour of the walls, the type of floor, or any paintings, pictures or posters on the walls, for example. You can create an image that is clear, vivid and substantial – and that is a very useful talent.The kitchen test shows that you can harness your thinking to work your way through the recent crisis and create a clear image of a better future. This is key to your investment strategy, as you can create an image of future success that has the same level of detail and clarity as to the image of your kitchenWhy is this important in terms of your future success and your success with clients? Left uncontrolled, your mind will come up with detailed and comprehensive images of the difficult situation you are in. It will default to wasting your much-needed energy by placing too much emphasis on the worries of the present. However, the troublesome present is where the problems lie. You want to be in a better place, but you have – at best – a vague and hazy image of that destination.The difficulties of your current reality will appear more potent than any possible future success. And since the mind values clear and detailed images, it will be drawn to where clarity and detail already exist – in this case, on the difficulties of the present situation. This is why the strength and scale of your problems seem to grow and grow. The more you focus your attention and energy on your current difficulties, the more vivid they become to the point that you may not be able to discern a successful future at all.This is where your investment strategy can provide its most significant return.The high-return investment strategyIn taking active control of your thoughts, you can switch your attention and actively invest your energy where it can deliver a more valuable outcome. This is not a trivial skill – it is scarce, of high value, and the vital key to future success for you, your practice, and your clients.To get full value from this insight, you need to establish a new habit. From this point on, every time a client falls into the routine of talking about the worry and stress they face, take active control of the dialogue and help them create an image of a better future.Don’t waste their attention and energy on vague or wishful thinking. Instead, guide them to create a clear and vivid image of a better place, an image that is as clear and real as the image of your kitchen.Rather than dwell on familiar problems, set them on a quest to establish what a successful future would be like. Your client has already built a business that is successful enough to need your accountancy expertise. Now, you can use your insights to help them leverage their knowledge and experience to create an image of a successful future.Research has conclusively shown that this ability is central to the success of the very highest achievers, those who achieve great success and prevail at times of stress or uncertainty. By helping your clients invest their attention and energy in creating a clear and specific image of future success, you are providing them with an immediate and powerful resource. They turn their thinking, attention and, therefore, energy to what they want to accomplish.For more than three decades, I have encountered a habitual pattern of clients focusing on current problems rather than investing actively in future success. Ironically, this habit can be most pronounced at the very time when it is least useful – when the problems seem so large and so vivid and are the cause of significant corrosive stress.When managers, groups or teams spend their time thinking about their most challenging problems, they tend to become dispirited and demotivated. When you help your clients do the opposite, however, you will become a scarce resource: the route to a better place.John Kennedy is a strategic advisor. He has worked with leaders and senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.

Sep 30, 2020
Management

David Lucas explains how businesses can access funding and trade through the COVID-19 crisis.The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses throughout the country. Cash flow is scant, debt is mounting, and many companies have yet to resume trading in any meaningful way. Those that are trading again have returned to a desolate and unfamiliar environment. Shops and high streets are empty, many stores remain shuttered and, with further restrictions in the pipeline, dented consumer confidence in certain sectors looks unlikely to rebound fully until a vaccine is developed.SME supportsWithout access to significant cash reserves, liquidity and cashflow are critical concerns for many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Fortunately, SMEs adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis can access a range of Government supports. The schemes listed below have been well-received by business owners, but preparation is the key to a successful application.SBCI COVID-19 Working Capital SchemeThis scheme offers loans from €25,000 to €1.5 million at a maximum of 4% interest to SMEs and small mid-cap enterprises. Applicants must meet at least one criterion related to the impact of COVID-19 on their business and one innovation criterion as per the European Investment Fund’s (EIF) standard conditions. No security is required on loans up to €500,000.Future Growth Loan SchemeThis scheme aims to make up to €800 million in loans available for terms of seven to ten years to SMEs and small mid-cap businesses. Loans range from €25,000 to €3 million per eligible company, with loans up to €500,000 available without security. The initial maximum interest rate is capped at 4.5% for loans under €250,000 and 3.5% for loans more than or equal to €250,000 for the first six months. The rates after that are variable.Sustaining Enterprise FundSupport of up to €800,000 can be provided to eligible companies that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Funding will be provided for five years using repayable advances, grant aid, equity, or loan note, comprising a combination of repayable and up to 50% non-repayable support. Administration fees on repayable support will be 0% over the first six months and 4% per annum after that. Repayments will be due in years four and five.Restart Grant PlusRestart Grant Plus is an expansion of the Restart Grant scheme. It provides grants of €4,000 to €25,000 to businesses with 250 employees or less, turnover of less than €100,000 per employee, and a 25% reduction in turnover as a result of COVID-19.Trading Online VoucherGrants of up to €2,500 (with 10% co-funding from the business) are available to companies with ten employees or less seeking to build an online presence. The voucher is targeted at small businesses with little or no online presence, turnover of €2 million or less, and at least six months’ trading history.Business Continuity VoucherBusinesses employing up to 50 staff are eligible to apply for a Business Continuity Voucher to the value of €2,500 towards third-party consultancy costs to assist with developing short- and long-term strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.Pandemic Stabilisation and Recovery Fund (PSRF)The PSRF is set up to invest in large- and medium-sized enterprises employing more than 250 employees or with annual turnover of over €50 million. Enterprises must be able to demonstrate their business was commercially viable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they can return to viability and contribute to the Irish economy. Investments are made on a commercial basis and they will seek a return for this and can invest across the capital structure, from equity to debt.Temporary Wage Subsidy SchemeBusinesses have also relied on the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS), which was replaced by the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) in September. The main elements of the EWSS are as follows:A €203 flat-rate subsidy per employee per week for businesses with a decrease in turnover of 30% or more;Employers in all sectors may qualify, subject to meeting certain qualifying conditions; andThe EWSS will expire on 31 March 2021. The legislation, however, provides that it may be extended beyond that date.CashflowThe measures above can provide critical relief and cash support to businesses. However, there are other proactive and straightforward ways in which companies can meet their liquidity needs before repayment moratoriums expire in Q4.Businesses can optimise by selling slow-moving stock to generate cash, for example. Also, debtor management might sound obvious, but assets can become tied up and the longer a debt remains unpaid, the less likely it is to materialise.Debt fundingMany people talk about loan-to-value and property, but at the end of the day, cash repays debt. Property and asset values are significant from a security perspective, and the banks draw comfort from having this as security. However, in recent years, cashflow (and its recurring nature as the first port of call in servicing debt) has been increasingly analysed. Banks are not in the business of selling companies or property unless they have to, but they do need to see cash being generated to service the existing debt quantum.In this volatile business landscape, SMEs may need to renegotiate covenants or restructure debt. Many businesses will find themselves over-leveraged and unable to make their debt repayments as they fall due. Banks expect this in cases where COVID-19 has hit businesses hard, but the key to success is open communication with the bank or funder.Think of it as a partnership approach. Businesses must be extremely well-prepared as approaching a bank can be painstaking and time-consuming. That said, they do understand the position you are in; all business owner/managers want to be able to pay down debt and keep their businesses alive.The standard suite of bank covenants comprises leverage (net debt/EBITDA), interest cover, and debt service cover ratio (DSCR), with the latter often proving the most difficult to manage. As a result of existing trading circumstances, all three may have been breached or be approaching a breach. The banks have provided moratoriums in many cases, but they will need to be looked at and renegotiated as they expire later in the year.The amortisation or repayment profile on debt may also need to be readjusted to match the company’s ability to repay. COVID-19 has devastated many businesses, and some may never return to the same trading levels as before. This outcome would, therefore, require a re-calibration of amortisation; back-ending or reducing it may be the only option. Banks will likely begin to pursue ‘cash sweep’ mechanisms to reduce debt positions in a restructure. Cash sweeps can be administratively cumbersome but show the bank that you intend to work with them to pay down debt.Meanwhile, businesses seeking access to further funding must become familiar with the various options available. Alternative lenders can be less onerous in terms of covenants. They tend to lend a little bit more than the traditional banks and offer increased flexibility, but they also charge higher interest, often as high as 7%.Invoice discounting, where banks lend based on an entity’s debtor book, has also become a popular form of lending from a working capital perspective. It gives the lender increased security, as they have direct access to the debtor book. The facility limits can also grow concurrently with business growth.Private equityEquity is another potential option for SMEs in need of a capital injection. This route has become increasingly popular in recent years, as investors provide experience and growth potential as well as capital.Many business owners are apprehensive about trading a piece of their business, but it is always better to own 70% of a thriving venture than 100% of a failing one.ConclusionOpen communication is crucial at this uncertain time. Lenders understand the position many businesses are in and will expect requests to pay down debt at a slower rate, given that earning profiles may have changed. The key to success, however, is organisation and planning.Seven tips for approaching a bank during a crisisSeek expert advice. A skilled and experienced adviser will know what the bank and its advisers want and will be able to communicate this effectively.Accept the situation. Look for the positives and work with the advice given to you to identify areas for improvement in the business. Listen to recommendations and have robust discussions about solutions.Be honest. A bank likes certainty and predictability. These are uncertain times, so work with the bank and do your best.Prepare a deliverable plan. Create a budget that is real and deliverable, with actions and assumptions clearly laid out. Communicate. Deliver the information clearly and precisely to reduce the potential for misinterpretation and confusion. Don’t ignore the bank and hope that the problem will go away.Prepare. Talking to your bank can be a very confronting and stressful process. Be prepared for hard questions, and don’t take it personally.Have back-up plans. Speak to your adviser about alternatives in the market, be it a direct lender or private equity investment.David Lucas FCA is Corporate Finance Partner at PKF O’Connor, Leddy & Holmes.

Sep 30, 2020
Management

John Convery discusses the important elements when creating a start-up and how you can improve its chances of success.Entrepreneurship is actively promoted and regularly encouraged. Being a business owner can be very fulfilling but starting a business is no easy task. This is a journey where you will meet a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It is a challenging, demanding, frustrating, testing, isolating, lonely, long road on the way to – hopefully – profitability and success.Research suggests 20% of start-ups fail in year one, just under 50% make it to year five, 66% have failed by year 10, and by year 15 only 25% are still surviving. Some businesses deemed to survive merely limp along for years, often referred to as 'the living dead'. However, with the right planning, mindset, and funding, improving start-up survival rates is achievable.Why start-ups failThere is a myriad of reasons why start-ups fail. In my view, it is usually due to a combination of factors rather than just one. Figure 1 summarises the most common reasons start-ups fail. They are broken into four areas:  market, founder, finance and other.Improving your chances of successTo improve your chances of having a successful start-up, you must get some fundamentals right.Sell a product/service that customers want A key reason start-ups fail is because there is an insufficient market need for the product or service. This can be mitigated through focus on the customer from the start. You must be customer-centric before you build, design, or develop anything. Take the time to put your ideas down on paper, and then go out to customers.Talk to potential customers or users, listen to them, try to identify their biggest pain points or struggles. Do market research.Build a basic, early version of the product.Go back to some potential customers, get their views and feedback.Refine, modify and enhance your product based on the feedback. Go back to potential customers again, get their views and any further changes or improvements needed.Enhance your product again.It is only with constant feedback and user reaction that you can improve the product and arrive at a point where it can begin to appeal to potential customers. It is a test and feedback loop. After the testing is done, you will begin to get a feel for a business model and pricing.Create a balanced teamFind good people with complementary skills who gel with one another – preferably a designer, engineer and marketeer. Teams build companies, not individuals. Investors also want to see a team, not a single founder.Control cashflow tightlyIt’s the job of the main founder or appointed finance person to make sure the company does not run out of money and to control finances tightly.Write a business plan The process of writing a business plan is not an academic exercise, it is a validation exercise on the product and overall business. The business plan should corroborate whether the product and overall business has potential. Appoint a savvy external business mentor or adviserTheir role is to ask hard questions, challenge you, objectively evaluate progress against targets set and hold you accountable. This person should not be a close relative or friend.Is entrepreneurship right for you?Creating a start-up is not for everyone. Like any career choice, not everyone is cut out for certain roles. It may not suit your interests, temperament, passion, or skills. The requirements or skillset for an entrepreneur are not specified, yet the skills required to be successful are rarely discussed other than in academic textbooks.Your character and resilience will be severely tested in a start-up, especially in the early stages. Delays, disappointments, criticism, rejection, frustrations, travel, endless presentations, knockbacks and 80-hour weeks with little pay is what a founder is facing. Fundraising is arduous, where it can take six months of meetings, calls, presentations and visits to secure investment. This takes a toll on you mentally and physically, and your ability to face these knocks and challenges while remaining optimistic is difficult. Successful entrepreneurs show some essential personality characteristics such as patience, an ability to listen, learn, accept criticism, and stay positive. They are a people person, and able to get along and deal with all types of individuals. Failure does not defeat them, and they learn from mistakes. They can take things in their stride and are willing to adjust or pivot when required. Successful entrepreneurs possess drive, ambition, and determination.Anyone who might be considering creating a start-up should do some self-examination as part of the planning. They need to ask themselves honestly if they have some or any of the requirements that an entrepreneur needs to have. Ask yourself questions such as:Do I have that entrepreneurial drive and determination?Am I cut out for this?Why do I want to start a business? You should only start a business for the right reasons. Self-indulgence, fulfilling a dream and pleasing someone else are not valid reasons.You fail and you learnThe aim of a start-up is to solve a problem for a customer. The customer comes first. Your starting point is talking to customers, discovering their pain points, and then using that feedback.If you are not getting good market traction, be prepared to pivot and change. If the business is still struggling to get off the ground, be prepared to disengage. This can be a difficult decision but necessary. You can always start again. Remember: you will pass failure on the way to success. A failed start-up is a valuable lesson. You fail, you learn, you start again and you do things better.I believe it is possible to improve start-up survival rates with good planning, the right mindset, and a funding plan. If your product/service is good enough, you will always secure funding. While the risks of failure in a start-up are high, the entrepreneurial spirit will nevertheless always be alive.John Convery FCA is a business adviser to start-ups and small businesses.

Sep 30, 2020
Personal Impact

Joanne Hession explains the concept of positive leadership and shares five strategies to help you develop this increasingly vital skill. I remember the financial crisis of 2008. I remember scrambling to try to keep my two businesses afloat. I remember thinking, to paraphrase Seamus Heaney, if I can get through this, I can cope with anything. Across the world, businesses were faced with incredible challenges. It was difficult for everyone. Employees took wage cuts, worked long hours, found new markets, and sought innovative solutions to keep their businesses going until things picked up. Some businesses did not make it while others did. Thankfully, we weathered the storm. Why did some businesses survive while others did not? There are many reasons, but a couple of years ago, I came across research conducted by Dr Fred Kiel in Harvard Business Review (as well as in Dr Kiel’s book, Return on Character). In 2015, Dr Kiel looked at whether business performance has any relationship with the CEO’s character. He asked employees in over 100 organisations to rate their chief executive on integrity, compassion, forgiveness and responsibility. Based on respondents’ feedback, he gave the CEOs an overall score, which he called their ‘character score’. Then, he looked at the return on assets (ROA) of the companies they led to see whether there was any relationship between character scores and business performance. The categorical answer was: yes, there was. The CEOs rated highest for their character score invariably led the companies with the best performance. The five highest-ranked leaders led companies with a ROA of close to 10% over the period. The companies of CEOs with a medium character score had an average ROA of about 5%. Interestingly, the leaders with the lowest character scores had ROA rates of around 2%. For me, this finding echoes the work of psychologist, Prof. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan. Prof. Peterson carried out an analysis of the common factors among US soldiers who returned from difficult tours of duty with higher resilience levels than others. As he analysed the data he noted that, aside from resilience, soldiers who progressed to leadership positions in the military also had the highest scores on ‘strength of character’ indicators such as honesty, hope, bravery, industry, and teamwork. These traits seemed to be most important in progressing to positions of leadership in the military. This research resonated with me deeply. I have always believed that the most important aspect of leadership lies in character, and both Dr Kiel and Prof. Peterson confirmed this. But more importantly, Dr Kiel’s research demonstrated that positive character attributes directly correlate with better leadership, all the way down to the bottom line. The central point is this: when things are really difficult, as they were in 2008, character is central to how people respond. Little did I know back then just how much more challenging the world would become 12 years later, and just how vital positive leadership would be. The role of influence Leadership is an interesting concept. Ask most people to name a leader and they will invariably choose a CEO, politician or perhaps a team captain. Whatever the context, it will almost always be the person at the top. Bottom-line results are often why one person is chosen over another: X was in charge when Rabona United won the league; or Y was the CEO when Tech Co. Inc. increased its share price three years in a row, for example. There are undoubtedly great leaders among these positional leaders. Yet I cannot help thinking that this notion of leaders as those at the top of their environments misses the point about what leadership is and where we can find it. Leadership is influence. If you influence others, you are leading them. Positive leadership is therefore about positive influence. Whether it is termed ‘authentic’, ‘transformational’, ‘charismatic’ or ‘servant’ leadership, positive leadership is influence that emerges because someone cares, empowers and supports others and because their behaviour or character provides an example that others use to forge their futures. I have been in the privileged position of running several businesses for over 20 years now. As founder and CEO, I have, in a literal sense, led those businesses. But just as importantly throughout those 20 years, numerous others have led me. When one of my staff saw a potential niche market, offering and explaining his findings, I was influenced to change our business direction slightly. When one of our technical experts saw a more efficient way to allow our teams to collaborate, I followed her lead to progress the overall business vision. In purely business terms, I may be founder and CEO, but I am well aware that there are times when my role is to lead, and there are times when my role is to take my lead from others.  This is a liberating and empowering idea. It doesn’t matter what our role is, and it doesn’t matter whether we are running a business or are the newest recruit through the door. Every one of us leads at certain times and follows at others. We all encounter moments every day when our actions, words, or behaviour might influence others. When this happens, others are effectively taking their lead from us, and we are leading them. Equally, we are all influenced by others and, regardless of our seniority, we need to maintain the humility to recognise that leadership is a shared endeavour. When everyone within a business understands that how they act will potentially influence and lead others, and when they are given the space and permission to exercise this leadership role, the benefits are immeasurable. Employee satisfaction increases as strict hierarchical structures gain flexibility; individual ownership and responsibility for behaviour and performance rise; and the sense of mutual collaboration within teams and across departments and functions grows exponentially. Beyond the professional realm, we can be leaders in all walks of life. In our families, we might have children, siblings, or parents who are influenced by us. Among our friends, we are constantly influencing and being influenced. This places a responsibility very squarely on our shoulders – if we are continually being asked to lead, how can we ensure that we are leading well? We all need an understanding of what good leadership should look like. What ‘good’ leadership looks like Good leadership has nothing to do with control or power. We can say that we are leading well only when we have exerted positive influence, whether we are aware of it or not. Even if we are not in a leadership position, we should aim to provide a positive example in how we lead ourselves and potentially influence others in a positive direction also. We cannot force others to follow us; we can only try to behave in a way that others will choose to follow. This means focusing on building our character in order to develop our leadership capacity. As a good starting point in building positive leadership, it is worthwhile to consider five main areas: 1. Reflect on your values. Positive leaders are clear about what they stand for. To develop your positive leadership capacity, you must understand your values. Make this a written exercise. Dig deep. What is it that matters to you? What are the boundaries that you will not cross, regardless of the pressures you might be under? What do you want to contribute to your business, community and family? Take time to reflect on your values because they are the yardstick by which others will measure you, and you will measure yourself. 2. Reflect on your behaviour. Few things are as powerful as seeing someone with deep integrity, who has the courage to be accountable and is willing to stand up for what they believe in. Unfortunately, few of us are as consistent as we would like to be. We all fall below the standards we expect of ourselves occasionally. Allow yourself to reflect regularly on your behaviour in light of your values. Be honest with yourself. Do you have higher expectations of others than you do of yourself? Have you judged others by their actions, but judged yourself by your intentions? Review your actions and behaviour over the previous days or weeks. How do you feel you have lived up to your values? Have you led as positively as you intended? How has your behaviour impacted on your team, colleagues, and those around you? 3. Reflect on your relationships. To influence another, for them to choose to take their lead from us, we must create a real and meaningful connection. People respond to genuine connection. If we want to build our positive leadership, we have to focus on the most basic (but frequently, the most difficult) things: to truly listen to what others are saying; to genuinely understand their perspectives or concerns; to treat everyone with respect and fairness. Assess how you have performed here. What could you do better? 4. Decide how you can improve. One of the most inspiring leadership characteristics is seeing someone who makes the most of what they have and works to maximise their abilities. Unless we learn to give our best and work to improve continually, we have little authority to influence or lead others. When you reflect on your behaviour and identify where you have fallen below your own standards, set yourself a finite and measurable action that will force you to address that shortcoming, even if it is only in a small way. Hold yourself accountable. 5. Repeat. Building positive leadership character is like going to the gym. It needs to become a part of your life to have a meaningful and lasting impact. Don’t try to change overnight. Instead, focus on making the steps above part of the fabric of your routine. Just like ‘peace’, in Yeats’ poem, change “comes dropping slow”, but small actions done consistently can create great change. Joanne Hession is Founder and CEO of LIFT Ireland, a not-for-profit initiative to increase the level of positive leadership in Ireland.

Feb 09, 2021
Personal Impact

Dr Patrick Buckley and Dr Elaine Doyle explain how gamification can enhance accounting education, and why experienced professionals might rail against the concept. Human beings are hard-wired to play. Games are an integral part of our personal, social and cultural identities. Games provoke powerful emotional responses of joy, anger, satisfaction and frustration. Science is discovering deep, complex relationships between our brains, neural systems, learning and game-play. A feature of the modern world is the rise of the video game, from Minecraft to Mass Effect. In 2019, the number of active video game players worldwide was 2.47 billion. For children and young adults, computer games have become a dominant form of media consumption. It is self-evident that computer games have a powerful effect on behaviour. The observation that the mechanics and dynamics used in games can affect motivation and behaviour has led to the concept of gamification. As is often the case with new ideas, there are several competing definitions. Broadly speaking, however, gamification can be seen as a suite of techniques and psychological prompts connected by their association with games and play. More specifically, gamification involves the use of elements traditionally associated with games (such as structured rules, competition, points and leaderboards, for example) in non-game contexts to prompt specific behaviours or emotional responses in individuals.Gamification in practice While gamification is a new term, using game mechanics to solve problems and gain an advantage in the real world is far from novel. For example, consumer loyalty points programmes leverage at least some of the elements and characteristics associated with games. In recent years, interest in gamification has been accelerated by: The ever-increasing pervasiveness of smart devices, such as phones and watches, that provide a platform for gamified activities; and The rise of the ‘attention economy’, where attention is individuals’ scarcest resource. The ability of gamification to attract and hold the attention of consumers, employees and other stakeholders is of significant interest to organisations. Many of us are now very familiar with fitness tracker devices and related apps, the experience of which is grounded in gamification. A variety of goals are set out (steps per day, calories burned and so on). Constant feedback and reminders are received (“Did you move enough this hour?”). Daily targets achieved are celebrated, and badges are awarded for more significant milestones. Fitness trackers also allow goals and achievements to be shared with friends, motivating us and encouraging competition. In business, activities such as marketing, customer relationship management and innovation are especially suitable for gamification. Other potential applications include personal productivity management and health management. The global market value of companies developing and deploying gamified activities and processes is expected to be $12 billion in 2021. Gamification also has the potential to make a difference in education and training. Capturing the attention of students, engaging them, and sustaining their interest has always been a challenge. Many educators feel their work has become more challenging as an ever-increasing array of digital distractions compete for attention. With its promise of positively engaging students and mediating their behaviour, gamification is a valuable tool that can be used to appeal to the digital generations.Gamification in accounting education From one perspective, education has always been gamified to a degree. A final grade can be seen as an external representation of how much you have learned relative to the content of your course. Tests and quizzes provide feedback on how much students have learned, both in absolute terms and relative to their peers. However, many educators are now becoming far more systematic about applying gamification to the design and delivery of their courses. When thinking about how gamification can be applied in educational and learning contexts, it is useful to think of it in terms of engendering particular classes of behaviour in students. For example, a teacher may decide that prompting competition will be effective in motivating students. To attain this goal, a traditional quiz may be adapted. When a student completes the quiz, for example, they will not just be told if they are correct or incorrect, but also how they performed relative to their classmates for each question. A more extreme version would publish results on a leaderboard for everyone to see how they did relative to the rest of the class. Conversely, a teacher may wish to promote collaboration, allocating badges (like ‘Best Explainer’) to a student who helps other students with explanations, using an online forum or a similar collaboration tool. These awards are often valuable in terms of demonstrating valued personal skills and attributes to potential employers. Demonstrated collaborative actions in learning contexts could be integrated into such schemes. Another teacher may wish to prompt creativity. Rather than create a test, the teacher would instruct students to develop a test themselves as a learning exercise, with marks allocated for how well the test meets and tests the learning outcomes of the course. This approach compels students to ask meta-questions about their course, such as: “What am I being asked to learn?” and “How will I know if I’ve learned it?” Extending this approach, students could be asked to take, evaluate and improve on the tests other students create, again prompting collaboration and engagement.Benefits of gamification Gamification is not a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires consideration and careful design to be used effectively and, as with many teaching techniques, it has its advantages and disadvantages. In the context of the teaching of accounting and tax, we have observed interrelated benefits of using gamification. The first and key benefit is improved motivation. Gamified activities are seen as being fun, interesting and engaging, and an improvement on more traditional ‘chalk and talk’ forms of content delivery and assessment. This is particularly the case for younger students, arguably because, having grown up with video games, they are more comfortable with games in general. Improved motivation then explains the other positive effects of gamification we have observed. In general, students tend to be more satisfied with courses that include gamified elements and activities. Students prefer and perform better in courses they are engaged and interested in, and gamification serves that end. More importantly, the learning outcomes for courses, as measured by grades, tend to be better in courses that contain gamified activities.Challenges of gamification In our experience, using gamification in an educational context also involves potential risks and requires careful consideration of at least three key challenges: The most significant challenge is the need for careful contextualisation of gamification. Time and again, we have noticed that different participants respond very differently to gamified activities. One of the most important variances is in how individuals react to competition. Some people are temperamentally inclined to be motivated by competition, while others find it objectionable in an educational setting. This variance seems to occur regardless of the gamification intervention used – some find badges motivating, while others see them as patronising, and so forth. A particular schism we have observed is that undergraduate students tend to respond far more positively to gamification than postgraduate students. From informal conversations, we have inferred that postgraduate students, who have paid significant fees for courses and are much more focused on grades, feel gamified activities are a ‘gimmicky’ distraction. Therefore, we expect that resistance to gamification would similarly be found in professional and continuing education contexts. Gamification works by creating extrinsic motivation like badges, points and leaderboards, as opposed to the intrinsic motivation of learning for the sake of learning. There is a significant body of research that shows how extrinsic motivators can temporarily shift behaviours, but that this shift will be short-lived. Unless the motivators are reinforcing, cumulative, and continually increasing, individuals will become satiated with external motivation, ultimately undermining its long-term impact. The old saying, “You get what you measure”, sums up a final challenge. A well-recognised risk of offering rewards linked to behaviour is that unless the reward is very tightly tied to the desired behaviour, the provision of rewards may encourage behaviours that are not desired by the game designer, but which are more effective at accruing a reward. Conclusion Gamification has attracted much interest as a way of creating more engaging educational experiences. It aligns with the media consumption habits of digital natives. It leverages the power of the pervasive information systems that are now integral to our lives. It offers a framework to address the motivational issues often associated with online learning, particularly useful in the new learning environment forced upon us by COVID-19. It also brings challenges and raises questions. Gamification is perhaps best thought of as a technique to inform the design of content delivery. As with any approach to education, it will be most successful when the learner’s abilities, needs and characteristics are placed at the heart of course design.Dr Patrick Buckley is a lecturer in information management at the Department of Management and Marketing, Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick. Dr Elaine Doyle is a lecturer in taxation at Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick. The business case for gamification ‘Gamification’ is the use of the dynamics and mechanics traditionally associated with computer games to affect behaviour in other contexts. As a generation of children and young adults who have engaged with computer games from their early years enter education and the workforce, educators and employers must understand how gamification can be used effectively to motivate and manage these individuals. This article looks briefly at the strengths and weaknesses of gamification as an educational tool to help facilitate individuals in developing their knowledge and professional skills. Gamification can improve motivation, satisfaction and assist in the achievement of learning outcomes. However, care must be taken to ensure that gamification matches students’ needs and does not obscure the value of learning with badges, leaderboards and the like. As with any tool, it must be used carefully. Nevertheless, the synergy between gamification and the lived experience of young people means its importance is likely to increase over time.

Nov 30, 2020
News

Burnout has been creeping into our workplaces and greatly affecting our lives, even before COVID. Noel O’Callaghan outlines how you can identify burnout and manage your work-related stress.Increasingly, we are hearing about how workplace stress is on the rise, especially where work and life both feel uncertain and unpredictable. In a new survey from the Department of Work and Employment Studies at the Kemmy Business School, 60% of employees in Ireland are feeling more stressed since the onset of COVID-19. As we become so ingrained in the day-to-day routine while meeting the needs of employers or customers, we can miss the alarm bells warning that what was a somewhat natural and manageable stress is now morphing into burnout, something considerably more serious. Work culture seeks to identify and label what they call ‘high achievers’ but, unfortunately, delivering more and more with less and less is often the only criteria needed to earn the distinction. Day to day, month-end to month-end, quarter-end to quarter-end, the relentless pace of work makes it seem impossible for someone to put their hand up and say, “Stop. I need to rest”. If you combine this with a personality that is wholly-committed to doing a good job, has a fear of failure, or is unsupported either at work or at home, then you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to excessive stress or burnout.Signs of burnoutWhat are the tell-tale signs of burnout? Burnout can lead to physical and mental exhaustion, a feeling of detachment, or a feeling of never being good enough no matter how much you deliver. Are you:terrified of going to work every day?always tired?disinterested in participating in hobbies outside of work?getting little enjoyment in anything and no motivation to seek it?feeling stuck, with little or no light at the end of the tunnel?(Sometimes these can also be accompanied by unusual physical aches and pains.)These are just a few of the more common red flags, but it can be different for everyone. The great news is that burnout is treatable. Taking breaks, knowing your limits, and watching out for situations or people that elevate the stress can help. However, there are also huge benefits gained from working on your relationship with work. I-It and I-ThouMartin Buber, a theorist and 19th-century Austrian philosopher, suggested that humans have two approaches to the way we interact with people, things and nature. One is an ‘I-It’ approach where we objectify whatever we are dealing with and seek to get as much out of it for ourselves as possible and the other is an ‘I-Thou’ approach, where we turn to the subject as a partner and seek to relate more to it for the mutual benefit of both parties. There is a recurring theme that I see is in relation to how people interact with their career and the workplace. A pattern emerges over years whereby one relates to their career, work or co-workers from an I-It standpoint, viewing it as a means to an end, which can cause the relationship with work to become so unhealthy that people become ill. Having a more constructive relationship can alleviate the symptoms of stress and burnout and instil a sense of nourishment into the workday. We should aim to shift the relationship from I-It to an I-Thou and think of work as something to be engaged in, enjoyed or experienced.  Noel O’Callaghan FCA is a qualified psychotherapist. If you would like to discuss how any of the topics mentioned above are impacting your mental health, please contact the CA support team at CASupport@charteredaccountants.ie.

Sep 04, 2020
News

How can we support the LGBTQ+ community in the workplace? Alexandra Kane details what it means to be an ally and how it can make a huge difference. “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” – Oscar Wilde The quote above sits among the desks on the fourth floor of the Grant Thornton Dublin building. It’s a poignant reminder and struck me a little differently reflecting on this year’s Pride month. What would it feel like if I couldn’t be myself in the office, that I had to hide a part of my life from my colleagues? What if I were afraid that a part of my life would create a backlash, negative reaction or possible career repercussion? The place we spend most of our time, albeit virtually and on video calls in the current climate, should be one of welcoming and support. To me, as a LGBTQ+ ally, there is not a single reason that anyone should feel that they can’t be who they want to be, who they identify as, and not face any adversity in doing so. In my organisation, there is a huge drive to stand as an ally with our friends and colleagues through our Ally Programme and Embrace initiative. We have marched in the Dublin Pride Parade for the last four years and, took part in BelongTo's ‘Come In’ campaign last year. This initiative flipped ‘coming out’ on its head by promoting the positive message that everyone should be able to come in and feel welcome as they are, rather than having to ‘come out’ as anyone other than themselves. To be an ally An ally can come in many forms, but should always come from a place of support, openness, kindness and ready to do the work. From recent global events in the Black Lives Matter movement, I have learned that it is safe to speak out and say that I didn’t know how to support or say the right things – and that is accepted when it is accompanied by a willingness and promise to learn, educate and support. It’s never too late to educate yourself, even if you have to start at the beginning. Learning about the Stonewall Riots, listening to the experiences of LGBTQ+ people of colour, and asking how you can support others is an important step to allyship. We can never under estimate the power of support in any form that it comes in, be it going for a coffee to listen to someone’s concerns, wearing rainbow colours in solidarity, attending the Pride Parade, and actively showing support to colleagues and friends in the workplace. Some recommended viewing for allies: Disclosure, found on Netflix. I recently attended a webinar ‘The L to A LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA’ which explored the ‘lesser known’ letters of the LGBTQ+ community. It discussed why gender identity and sexuality are intrinsically linked. The key take away I received from the webinar is that language is ever changing and our identity is a personal preference. The pronouns or letters we choose is exactly that: our choice. If being an ally makes one person feel more comfortable, supported and accepted as their true selves, I couldn’t encourage being an active ally more. Alexandra Kane ACA is a Manager in Financial Services Advisory at Grant Thornton, a Grant Thornton Ally and member of the Grant Thornton Ally Programme.

Jun 25, 2020
News

With no party or march this year, how are businesses showing meaningful support for the Pride movement? John McNamara tell us how can we adapt to actively support the LGBTQ+ community in a virtual space.  So how did you celebrate Pride this year? Yes, we are approaching the end of June, the month where people from all demographics, race, religion and, of course, sexual orientation take to the streets to come together and celebrate acceptance, and agitate for the rights still being fought for. (Unless you live in one of the 73 countries where that is still illegal.) Except, of course, we didn’t march this year thanks to the non-discriminatory nature and reach of COVID-19. Most businesses quickly scrambled to develop virtual programmes to keep staff awareness and engagement alive. Another Zoom call, another webinar, why not? But there are lessons still to be learned that are applicable across the full inclusion agenda, many of which will have the potential for positive enduring business impact. Year-round support Every year there is heated debate on the ‘corporatisation’ of what is, essentially, a protest movement. It will now be very clear which businesses do little else in this space except throw money at Pride parade participation. Now is the time for employees to call out this performative participation in the movement and encourage their organisations to refocus budgets on both active staff collaboration and engagement and support of community organisations throughout the year. LGBTQ+ young people are four times more likely to experience anxiety and depression, three times more likely to experience suicidal ideation and that happens in December as well as June. Creating long-term change If there is no party this year, there is the opportunity to develop meaningful digital messaging, to focus more on staff connection and conversations and to place a stronger focus on advocacy. We have shown more curiosity, shared more of our own lives, and our understanding about our colleagues’ personal circumstances is much deeper than when we sat in the office together. I have heard more conversations on mental health recently than at any time I can think of. The pace of change in many of these issues has historically been too slow. In recent months, however, we have shown our ability to quickly build new business models and our flexibility in remote working. How can we sustain these new ways of working that can, for example, access more women working from home rather than leaving the workforce or accept that highly talented people with neurodiversity need not be present in an office environment to shine in their roles? Intersectionality This year also brings greater awareness of intersectionality which, simply put, means we are complex beings that cannot be defined by one characteristic alone and, depending on the hand you have been dealt, can be disadvantaged by multiple forms of oppression, isolation or exclusion or, conversely, benefit from white privilege. Black Lives Matter is here to stay. The LGBTQ+ community is acutely able to recognise inequality of treatment, that sense of not belonging, and our allyship is evident through activism, protest and sharing the platforms we have through the month and beyond. Do better Most of us do not wish to emerge from this crisis without changing something for the better. We have perfected banana bread, know too much about Joe Wicks and got as far as we could on Duolingo. How about we become proactive in making a personal commitment to ourselves to do more? Become a volunteer, train as a mental health ambassador, develop charity trustee or board experience or become a visible LGBTQ+ ally at work. Do it and you won’t look back. Now that would be something worth celebrating. John McNamara FCA is Managing Director of Canada Life International and a member of the Chartered Accountants Diversity and Inclusion Committee. He is chairperson of the NGO behind SpunOut.ie and 50808.ie, the newly launched free crisis text messaging service funded by the HSE. He a member of the fundraising committee of BelongTo, which supports young LGBTQ+ people.

Jun 25, 2020
News

To truly embrace diversity, businesses must view inclusion through an intersectional lens. Deborah Somorin explains why this is so important, both personally and professionally. Intersectionality was first coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw back in 1989, and has gained common usage since. According to Womankind Worldwide, a global women’s rights organisation, intersectionality is “the concept that all oppression is linked… Intersectionality is the acknowledgement that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression and we must consider everything and anything that can marginalise people – gender, race, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc..”. In 2015, ‘intersectionality’ was added to the Oxford Dictionary as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”. What does that mean? While Pride is a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community, it is also a protest, and intersectional Pride continues the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, as well as the rights of all marginalised communities in Ireland and around the world. Intersectional Pride Flag You’ll notice the Pride flag on the street and in some corporate Pride logos, such as LinkedIn and Chartered Accountants Ireland, look a little different this year. In 2018, designer Daniel Quasar started a movement to reboot the pride flag to make it more inclusive and representative of the LGBTQ+ rights we are still fighting for. According to Dezeen magazine, “Graphic designer Daniel Quasar has added a five-coloured chevron to the LGBT Rainbow Flag to place a greater emphasis on ‘inclusion and progression’. The flag includes black and brown stripes to represent marginalised LGBT communities of colour, along with the colours pink, light blue and white, which are used on the Transgender Pride Flag. Quasar’s design builds on a design adopted by the city of Philadelphia in June 2017.” Intersectional allyship To quote a recent GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) statement: “There can be no Pride if it is not intersectional”. If we want to celebrate Pride in our profession in an inclusive way, we must make an intentional effort to celebrate intersectional Pride. If Pride doesn’t include the acknowledgement of other marginalised other communities, it is performative. The LGBTQ+ movement doesn’t need performative allies – it needs authentic allies who care about making the communities we work and live in more inclusive of all races, genders, class, physical advantage and sexual orientations. I’m a gay, black woman who happens to be a Chartered Accountant. If your organisation or community is choosing not to view inclusion through an intersectional lens, you are unintentionally choosing not to include people like me. Deborah Somorin ACA is a Management Consultant at PwC, a member of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Diversity and Inclusion Committee and founder of Empower the Family.

Jun 25, 2020
Strategy

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the journey towards the fourth industrial revolution and new threats emerged in the process. Business leaders must therefore think about cybersecurity in a new way, writes Dani Michaux. Over the past year, we have seen significant geopolitical changes driven by the impact of COVID-19, forcing organisations to strengthen their resilience. The realisation has also dawned that the world as we once knew it has changed. Amid all of this, I see a new and very different operating model emerging for business. That new operating model is based on various restructuring activities, accelerating digitalisation initiatives, alternative partnership models, and a sharper focus on core activities. As organisations pivot, it is essential to reflect and consider the risks that may emerge as part of these organisational changes. What do the changes mean for the organisation, its supply chain partners and players, connected industry, government, and broader society? One prominent challenge is the need to safeguard the new digital ecosystem, which underpins this transformation, from cyberattack and information infrastructure breakdown. The world kept turning in 2020 During the early part of 2020, we saw an increased number of CEO identity frauds, payment frauds, ransomware attacks, and crude attacks on insecure cloud services. As the year grew old, we saw more complex attacks targeting supply chains, major cloud environments, remote working applications, security product providers, and even critical infrastructure services. This time last year, we claimed that cybersecurity is key to achieving the fourth industrial revolution. COVID-19 has accelerated that revolution and the use of digital and cloud technologies in both the public and private sectors. Those technologies are now fundamental to our society. Sadly, the pandemic has also shown that organised crime is opportunistic and ruthless in exploiting events to gain financial advantage. Thus, we witnessed a steady stream of high-profile cyberattacks on private enterprise, government, and social media platforms during the year. It is nevertheless encouraging to observe the pace at which organisations rolled out robust digital infrastructure during difficult times and the collaboration between business, technology, and security teams to safeguard these rapidly deployed services. It illustrates how these often-siloed parties can work together effectively to introduce secure innovation at market speed. COVID-19 has propelled Chief Information Security Officers (CISO) into a new dimension. Suddenly, they must manage thousands of home-working sites, personal devices, and a rapid shift to the cloud. The CISO has moved from securing corporate IT boundaries to a broader view of enterprise security. The timescale for many cloud migration projects has collapsed from years to months in the race to meet fast-changing business needs. Hyperscale cloud providers are increasingly dominant and intently focused on security. To succeed in the future, security teams must: Reskill employees to reflect the split of responsibilities between enterprise and cloud-service providers; Adapt to agile development methods and new digital channels; and Enact these innovations while cloud security skills attract a premium salary as the global job market competes for much-needed talent in 2021. The rise of supply chain attacks Political and business leaders have become alert to the global interdependence of many critical functions and the nature of risk that cross-border supply chains have. The pandemic made these murky operational and systemic risks real and gave people pause for thought. Supply chain attacks are not new. However, in the new highly digitalised and interconnected world, they are becoming more prominent. Frequent attacks raise concerns about organisations’ ability to remain resilient. We have seen several prominent cases over the past few years. Examples include the Target cybersecurity attack, where a network intrusion may have exposed approximately 40 million debit and credit card accounts; a global cyber-espionage campaign known as ‘Operation Cloud Hopper’, which formed part of a shift to target managed service providers; a worldwide campaign against telecommunications providers called ‘Operation Soft Cell’; and the latest cyberattack on Solarwinds, a global provider of network management solutions. A common theme in these attacks is the presence of third-party providers of hardware, services, or software. In complex infrastructure, set-ups that include rapid pivoting to new environments and dependencies on third-party suppliers are both common and intimate. Third-party providers are targeted with the ultimate aim of reaching a bigger mark. The methods and duration of the compromise vary, but there are some common patterns. These include exploiting speed and rapid deployment challenges and looking for exposures in security controls as firms shift rapidly to new technology. Of course, smaller organisations within the supply chain may also attract greater attention, based on the assumption of reduced sophistication and scale of security operations. Lessons can be learned from sectors like oil and gas, where human safety is at the top of executive agendas and assumptions are challenged continuously. It starts from the proposition that you cannot assume that anything will work in the event of an explosion. For example, a company might have a procedure to pre-book hospital beds for casualties, but what happens if the hospital doesn’t have a burns unit? What happens if the ambulances can’t get to the site of the explosion? These things have to be planned for in advance, requiring creative paranoia and a certain mindset. That’s the type of culture of resilience that should be in place in all organisations. It is a question of overall operational resilience, not just the resilience of IT systems and security. In this complex world, organisations should address the following practical questions: 1. Understand the risks and dependencies in the supply chain. Here are some questions to ask: What are the threats and exposures associated with third-party access to your environments, services, and products? Do you have contractual agreements in place with clear service level agreements concerning expectations around cybersecurity? Are you in a position to monitor those, including supplier activities? Do you monitor exposures and cyber risks associated with the supply chain and discuss these issues as part of an ongoing agenda within the organisation’s management and risk committees? 2. Understand the full extent of the supply chain within the existing environment and any changes arising from new digitalisation initiatives. Here are some questions to ask: How has the profile changed based on the rapid digitisation, restructuring and transformation initiatives in place? Do you have a view further down the supply chain (to fourth- and fifth-party providers, for example)? 3. Make arrangements to respond to supply chain cyberattacks collectively. Here are some questions to ask: Are there any mechanisms in place? Have you exercised these? Has the organisation included lessons learned from previous attacks? How has the organisation adapted based on the lessons learned from incidents? Are any other improvements required? Stepping into the future As we look to the future of highly digitalised and scalable environments, resilience will be paramount and non-negotiable. Organisational resilience will rely heavily on the stability of the end-to-end supply chain. However, it will also require a new approach to data security. The hunt will be on for cybersecurity orchestration opportunities, robotic process automation around manual security processes, more integration with key IT workflows, and new managed service and delivery models. Third-party security may also need new models for more dynamic risk management and scoring, including better tracking of supply chain stresses. Of course, assessments such as SOC 2 and ISAE 3402 will play a growing role as firms seek to provide evidence once to satisfy myriad client questions about cybersecurity. However, we can also expect to see the rise of ‘utility models’ where intermediary organisations aggregate client assurance requirements to undertake a one-size-almost-fits-all assessment of suppliers’ cybersecurity. This is already happening in the UK with the support of financial regulators. Over the last few years, firms have also sprung up offering risk scoring services based on a scan of a firm’s internet-facing services. They also monitor for data disclosures in the shady corners of the internet and alert customers to a potential supplier problem that they may not be aware of or are yet to disclose. Large companies will often ask these risk-scoring services to monitor hundreds of suppliers. As the outsourcing of non-core business services accelerates, it is worth asking: do you pay sufficient attention to your dependency on third-party actors who are now integral to your security and resilience as a business? As we look to the future, organisations will need to move on from thinking exclusively about enterprise firewalls, anti-virus software, and patching policies. Instead, they will need to consider approaches to security. This begins with the premise that a company’s success is based upon its reputation, which is ultimately a manifestation of the trust others have in its offerings. This mindset leads companies to embed security into products and services, but it also focuses attention on protecting customers, clients, and those increasingly important supply chain partners. It emphasises stewardship of the trust they place in you when they share their most sensitive data or show their willingness to become dependent on you. No organisation is an island, and all of us are part of an increasingly hyperconnected world. In that world, trust in supply chains and ecosystem partnerships matters more than ever. Dani Michaux is Head of Cybersecurity at KPMG Ireland.

Mar 26, 2021
Strategy

Dr Joanne Murphy has researched the Northern Ireland business community’s experiences in facing the challenges of the Troubles to make life as normal as possible for their customers. It is perhaps timely to listen to their voices and reflect on the crucial role businesspeople play in fostering and maintaining peace. “We had a door in the bar that squeaked, and I used to think that sometime in my life, that door will squeak and my stomach won’t tighten – I’ll not have that fear in me. The first year was just like hell.” These are the words of a publican I interviewed, reflecting on his first years in business at the start of the Troubles. While much has been written about this period, few existing accounts reflect the business community’s experience of living and working through violence. From my research in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, and Bosnia on how leaders and managers adapt to and function in environments of conflict, I have identified four common characteristics among those who share such experiences: The fear, countered by courage, experienced in running a business against a background of the threat and reality of violence; The ability to continue to make decisions in the ‘grey zone’ of an environment where a clear good or positive outcome is often not possible; An acute understanding of the political dynamics at play at a community level; and An ability to seize the business opportunities presented by political change and evolution. Fear and courage It is easy to forget that in violent environments, experiences are visceral. An experience repeatedly shared by business owners I have interviewed is one of living with fear and the need for the courage to confront it. In the case of Northern Ireland, many have described how the disruption and street violence of the civil rights period quickly descended into the chaos of full-blown conflict and its impact on what had been a stable, albeit divided, business environment. A pharmacist with a business at the centre of a market town described the early years of protest and trouble: “When the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations started, we would have had to lock the doors because there were fights bouncing off the windows. It progressed on to the bombing and incendiaries.” As the conflict progressed and periods of violence became more intense, low levels of intimidation sometimes became active threats. The same pharmacist recalled frightening days in 1981: “During the hunger strikes, we got a slip of paper through our letterbox saying ‘When Bobby Sands dies, you close for the funeral’… but we didn’t close and there were three of them that came in about 9.30am. I knew one of them… ‘You’re not closed?’, they said, and I said ‘No’. And they said ‘Are you going to close?’, and I said ‘I’m not. I prayed for Bobby Sands at mass this morning. I prayed for his family. I don’t think he should have taken his own life’. So then, they went out, and about ten minutes later, the phone rang. ‘If you’re not closed in half an hour, you’ll be dead.’ I sent the two staff home – there weren’t many customers about, but I did the rest of the day myself. And I can assure you that every time the door opened…” With towns and cities encircled by barriers and security forces, the economic impact was devastating. Interviewees talked about losing half their business when towns were gated to protect them from bomb attacks, deterring casual shoppers. Even with this difficulty, there were consistent attempts to stay positive and open for business. A shop owner reflected: “The way I looked at it, you had to think of the people that took the trouble to come to you”. Undoubtedly, there was a personal impact on people’s peace of mind and mental health. One business owner reflected on a particularly difficult period. “There were times you would drive into work, the mountains so peaceful above you, and I’d think ‘I’d just love to drive on and walk in those mountains’. I’m a very calm person, but I remember the whole front of the shop was blown out with a bomb, and we had to barricade it up and lock it with a chain and a padlock. One day I couldn’t get it open with the key, and I just kicked it down… not like me at all.” The resilience to persevere through fear and uncertainty was critical. Decision-making in the ‘grey zone’ In his book, The Drowned and the Saved, Italian industrial chemist and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote about the moral ambiguity of being trapped in an environment of terror, the ‘grey zone’, where moral compromises persist and perfect outcomes are not possible. In such situations, business owners struggle to manage relationships when trust is in short supply and there is acute anxiety about outcomes and the consequences of action. One commented on the struggle to find a middle way: “I didn’t trust the cops, and I didn’t trust the paramilitaries”. Many of those I interviewed spoke about making choices to establish acceptable behaviour norms to mitigate a volatile environment’s worst aspects. For example, a publican described taking a stand about bad language in his bar, despite being personally threatened. The difficulty of such decisions should not be underestimated, and many interviewees were open about the dread such choices entailed. They were also clear about the compromises made to be able to trade successfully. The employment of doormen, for example, could put bar and club owners into morally invidious positions. One observed that while such dilemmas had eased as the peace process developed, doing business still involved engaging with paramilitary elements in local communities. He described how demands from paramilitaries had changed from “You need to employ such and such” to a more conciliatory “If you’re employing doormen, will you employ these doormen and it’ll be completely legit, and you tell them what your rules are, and how you would like to run it?” He concluded: “Most things would work out okay”.  One of the factors that facilitated a move away from engagement with paramilitary elements was a high level of political and community knowledge among business leaders. Initiatives like sponsorship of local sports and youth clubs helped embed relationships in the community and allowed business owners to leverage a wide range of connections, providing a protective mechanism against organised paramilitarism. The grey zone was particularly extended for the business community during prolonged periods of heightened tension, such as the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike when many businesses were either forced to close or closed voluntarily in protest at the Sunningdale Agreement. “During the Ulster Workers’ strike, we dealt with it in a very Irish way. We closed the front door and opened the back.” Such compromises, however, often obscured the very firm line businesspeople drew in the sand. “For anyone who has shown weakness, that’s the road to ruin. And anyone I’ve known who has joined in – let paramilitaries put machines in, laundered money, et cetera – it’s ended in a very bad way.” Understanding the political realities When asked about the knowledge and behaviours necessary to survive and thrive in a politically volatile and violent situation, one businessman observed, “You need to understand the environment very well, and the bad and difficult bits of it. I’ve been involved in low-level mediation, trying to do things behind the scenes, you know, when workers are being intimidated. If someone’s getting hassle, I would try to help because I know people. Knowing people is very important.” One common challenge was discrimination based on community background, religious belief, or political opinion. While much has been written about such discrimination in employment terms, respondents were often keen to relay their experiences of similar dynamics affecting the sale of property and the procurement of services. The boycotting of shops would intensify at times of political tension: the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, the hunger strikes, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Drumcree protests were all identified as difficult periods. Many were sanguine about the reality of the underlying community division that resulted in people choosing to do business or give their business to a rival based on community identity. One rural business owner noted the difficulties in buying and selling property, comparing it with the experience of racial segregation in the United States. “I remember being the highest bidder a couple of times on unionist property and it being withdrawn from sale and finding out later it had been sold. But I can understand that because those people had to live in the community. It’s not easy… but if they sell to me, they could be in trouble with their own people. You have to be at peace with your own community. Those who step outside that are very brave people.” Seizing the opportunities of change In 1994, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) published Peace: A Challenging New Era, which became widely known as the ‘Peace Dividend paper’. It argued that a viable peace process would help spur economic growth, which would help promote peace. This initiative coincided with strenuous efforts to move to a non-violent environment, including John Hume’s ongoing dialogue to move the IRA away from violence. The CBI emphasised that the vast amounts of money being absorbed by the Troubles could be reinvested in education and infrastructure. At a local level, the business community could also sense change. One respondent, a Belfast-based businessman, recalled seeing the opportunity and changing his business strategy – but then having his expansion plans rejected by local funders, who were unconvinced. The idea of moving into Belfast city centre, previously an economic wasteland, closed and cut off during much of the Troubles, was indeed radical. “I decided to move the business to Belfast. I thought, I’ve got to get into the city centre – that was that. I knew that when I went to the centre of Belfast, people would start to come in.” While local entrepreneurs may have sensed that the environment and business opportunities were shifting, support was not necessarily forthcoming from regional business development agencies. The same businessman recalls visiting one such organisation in search of support after he decided to move his business into Belfast city centre. “I outlined my vision. They told me it was never going to work. It was a very short meeting, and I haven’t forgotten it.” Others reflected on how they sought to build community relations in various ways, including the employment of ex-combatants. Many also believed that they had the opportunity to give something back and benefit the wider community: “My firm’s ethos and culture is about doing some good here. And, if I’m honest, these things often have a very beneficial business upshot.” For many, the business benefits of peace also sit beside a clear commitment to the region and an investment in its stability and sustained progress. When the conversation with one businessman turned to recent violence by dissident republicans, including the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry in 2019, he was unwavering in his view that a deterioration in the security situation would not impact his commitment to Northern Ireland. “If things got worse, I’d work harder. I’m far too invested in the community here to give up. I feel so blessed that I don’t carry any baggage from the past… I’ve not lost anyone or had anyone injured. I’m lucky in that sense.” The journey to a ‘kind of’ peace in Northern Ireland has been long, and not all stories have been told. We are only beginning to understand the impact local enterprise has on stabilising society and building accord, but the experiences of those who worked through difficult times stand as a testament to their resilience and the need to build on progress. Dr Joanne Murphy is Reader in Leadership & Change at the Centre for Leadership, Ethics and Organisation in Queen’s University, Belfast.

Mar 26, 2021
Strategy

The Irish economy has taken a blow because of the pandemic. How can we go about restoring it? Foreign Direct Investment is an important key to recovery, argues Thomas Sheerin. COVID-19 has had a severe impact on the Irish economy. Activity and employment have dropped sharply and this is expected to continue for some time. As Ireland begins its recovery, the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) sector will play a significant role from an employment, activity and financial contribution perspective. Continued and sustained investment in multiple sectors such as technology, pharma, medical devices and financial services will greatly assist the rebuilding of our economy. FDI’s contribution to the Irish economy has been significant, with over 1,200 overseas companies directly employing over 200,000 people. In addition, FDI contributes significant tax revenue and generates commercial activity across the wider economy. FDI drives investment in research and innovation, with strong linkages to Irish third-level education institutions. During the pandemic, many FDI companies engaged in the production of hand sanitizers, ventilators and vaccine research. These positive contributions will prove more valuable than ever as Ireland emerges from a substantial economic downturn. In particular, the local impact of FDI and its links to domestic businesses will assist recovery across the country. The key attributes that have assisted Ireland’s success in attracting and retaining FDI remain very strong. These include a skilled workforce, a competitive business environment, a strategic location, EU membership and a competitive stable tax regime. Notwithstanding the current challenging economic climate, continued success in the FDI space is reflected in recent job and investment announcements from Bearing Point//Beyond and Udemy. Overcoming the challenges As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve, businesses are feeling the human, social and economic implications. Businesses must continue to manage and mitigate the disruption that COVID-19 brings to every aspect of their operations. From working with our clients, it’s clear that key challenges arise in the areas of supply chain, travel, workforce and tax, trade and regulation. The effects of COVID-19 are particularly felt by organisations dependent on supply chains for products and materials. Businesses have been forced to act quickly to map their entire supply chains. This provides the visibility and information needed to make critical decisions in real-time and to identify alternative supply chain strategies. From a workforce perspective, new employee welfare and engagement challenges have emerged. Technology needs to be adopted quickly to ensure that teams can work remotely while staying connected and productive. Returning to the workplace needs to be managed effectively with clear processes in place – early engagement, clear communication and provision of alternative working arrangements are key. As a small, open economy, travel plays a fundamental role in how FDI investment is secured, sustained and developed. COVID-19 restrictions have brought international travel to a standstill, presenting a significant challenge for FDI. However, proactive adoption of technology and utilisation of video and web conferencing technologies has enabled the necessary connections to continue to take place during the pandemic. COVID-19 has brought additional complexity and risk from a tax and regulatory perspective. This requires FDI businesses to consider the broader economic, political and societal context in which they operate to ensure informed, tax compliant decisions are made which drive the business forward. While the economic outlook for Ireland has changed dramatically in recent months, the road to recovery is underway. Similar to our emergence from the 2008 financial crisis, FDI should  prove to be a key feature in that recovery. Thomas Sheerin is a Tax Director in PwC.

Jun 18, 2020
Strategy

How can we safeguard our economic future through digital opportunities? By investing now, we can create a better Ireland going forward, says Erik O’Donovan. Digital tools are essential services to our economy and society. They have enabled us to connect, work, study, shop, and access public services in these challenging times. Digital tools and data are even assisting and enhancing healthcare provision during this public health emergency. Ireland had made progress in its digital development going into the COVID-19 crisis. However, some gaps remain in our relative readiness to access and adopt existing and emerging digital opportunities for future growth and well-being. Accessing these digital opportunities has been a challenge for some, while the attainment of digital skills and bridging regional digital divides have grown in importance. The ambition of the National Broadband Plan and opportunities presented by 5G technology must be realised. Criminal elements have also sought to exploit the crisis using digital tools, underlying the need to preserve trust and protect our essential services, businesses, and people online. Finally, this emergency has shown the value of government, agencies, businesses and citizens working together, both at home and internationally, to drive positive change in difficult times. A digital recovery plan Our economic future is intrinsically linked to the ability of our health and wider governance systems to confidently model and plan for the phased re-opening of the country. Furthermore, our economic future must be robust enough for the potential re-emergence of such emergencies in the future. Trustworthy digital tools and data, used in conjunction with a suite of health measures, offer the opportunity to assist Ireland and Europe in transitioning from this emergency to providing better public services, economic growth, quality jobs and enhancing well-being. The European Commission’s COVID-19 recovery plan for the EU is based on a more digitalised Single Market and green growth. It has been estimated that, under certain conditions, a more digitalised Single Market could provide annual gains of up to €178 billion to the EU economy until 2030. Ibec research indicates there has been a business move towards more online sales (31%), coupled with greater use of remote working (73%) and increased investment in technology (42%), pointing to a more digitalised way of conducting business in the future. So, how should Ireland ensure it is at the forefront of this digital future? Given the scope of the challenge, the government should appoint a Minister dedicated to digital affairs to work with national and EU stakeholders and drive a coordinated approach to our further digital transformation. Protect services, business, and citizens, and preserve trust online. Ensure national cybersecurity and data protection capabilities are adequately resourced. Signal and enable further digital opportunity across our economy. Deliver new roadmaps on digital and artificial intelligence. Finally, invest in supports, research, infrastructure, and skills necessary to help government, public services, businesses, educators, and individuals to lock-in positive digital developments, as well as access and adopt further digital opportunities. As James Joyce noted, “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today.” It is time to reimagine tomorrow. Read about Ibec’s Reboot and Reimagine campaign at www.ibec.ie. Erik O’Donovan is the Head of Digital Economic Policy at Ibec.

Jun 18, 2020
Strategy

Caroline Pope considers the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and their relevance as a framework to rebuild resilient companies as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. At present, the full impact of COVID-19 on the Irish and global economy is not yet clear. However, the ability of society to work together towards a common goal has been recognised and should form part of the recovery. In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) were adopted by all member states. Their purpose is to coordinate efforts to improve human lives, protect the environment, and ensure the sustainable development of our societies. Sustainability may not be the most obvious lens through which one should assess the abnormal events of recent months. Yet trends are emerging, which may make business leaders think more deeply about sustainability in the context of their organisations. Below, we outline three of these factors. The UN SDGs drive increased resilience. There is growing evidence that businesses that have already aligned their strategy with the UN SDGs are more resilient to an economic shock. The UN SDGs are not going away. The future business landscape is uncertain, but increasing evidence points to an operating environment that favours businesses that align with the principles of sustainability. A business strategy aligned with the UN SDGs can create value. Aligning a business strategy with the UN SDGs may seem like a daunting process, but there are well-understood methodologies that can be applied. The UN SDGs drive increased resilience  Businesses that align their core strategy with the UN SDGs (also known as ‘sustainable businesses’) take a broader, stakeholder-based view of their activities. As a result, these businesses tend to demonstrate a deeper understanding of oft-overlooked or under-valued areas of their companies, such as supply chains, and their degree of interconnectedness with society in general. This broader understanding, which is the result of UN SDG alignment, can position them to respond more rapidly to the threats that COVID-19 represents to their stakeholders. In particular, supply chains are coming under increasing pressure due to the global nature of COVID-19, combined with the increasingly international scope of business. The advice from supply chain experts such as Richard Wilding OBE, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at Cranfield University, is to “urgently review their supply chain to find out how exposed they are… it’s still common for businesses to just deal with a central HQ of a supplier and not know what route the supplies they need are taking”. Full alignment with UN SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities, will drive businesses towards total supply chain transparency; they will know each factory where their inputs are processed and all the intermediate steps along the way. These businesses are in a much better position than those rushing to uncover their true supply chain risks amid a crisis. This seemingly serendipitous point illustrates a key feature of SDG alignment: it is consistent with well-managed operations. Alignment with SDGs has also made companies more resilient. For example, there has been a paradigm shift for many businesses since COVID-19 emerged as they have sought to facilitate organisation-wide remote-working to prevent activity grinding to a halt. Contrast this with sustainable businesses such as Vodafone who, in recent years, saw remote working as a means of advancing Goal 5, Gender Equality, and have already invested in the infrastructure to facilitate this. Finally, sustainable businesses enjoyed a higher degree of investor confidence before the economy shut down and seem to continue to enjoy a higher degree of investor confidence as the shut-down continues. Figures published by Funds Europe suggest that values of European sustainable funds dropped by 10.6%, compared with the “overall European fund universe” which declined by 16.2%. Robeco, the global asset manager, has also found a positive relationship between lower credit risk and sector alignment with SDGs. The RobecoSAM Global SDG Credits strategy outperformed the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Index by +90 basis points in March of this year. To compound these data points, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UN PRI) membership group recommends that all signatories (which represents $86.3 trillion in assets under management) support sustainable companies through the crisis in the interest of public health and long-term economic performance, even if that limits short-term returns. The UN SDGs are not going away The existential threat of COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus other threats of a similar scale, such as climate change and social inequality. The global response to COVID-19 has shown that there is a willingness to embrace long-term changes and drive towards a common goal. This sense of spirit will likely fade as the crisis abates, but it is unlikely to disappear totally. Companies that genuinely embedded purpose before March 2020 are likely to experience favourable trade winds from an upturn due to the opportunity for reflection (and social media opinions) by customers and employees during the lockdown. As societies get over the initial shock of the pandemic and the focus shifts from lockdown to restart, the critical question is how to put the economy and society on a trajectory that lasts. There is a growing consensus in Europe, for example, that the required economic stimulus will have a green hue. In April, the Government of Ireland indicated that it fully supports the EU Green Deal proposed as the central tenet of an economic recovery plan, aligning with 16 other member states. The EU Green Deal provides a roadmap towards a clean, circular economy, restoring biodiversity and cutting pollution. The proposed EU direction of travel is very much aligned with the UN SDGs and this political environment should create an opportunity for businesses that choose to swim with the current. Investors, such as Blackrock, have signalled that regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still expect companies to continue with their ESG (environmental, social and governance) targets. Blackrock has pledged to vote against the directors and boards of companies that fail to meet its expectations to manage environmental risk in 2020 and called for companies to report in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework. The asset manager expects companies to publicly report how sustainability risks and opportunities are integrated into business strategy. In an Irish context, the UN SDG Index report, released in 2019, shows significant challenges to Ireland meeting several key metrics, including SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 17 (Partnerships). This is due in part to an absence of information, but also reflects our known challenges on climate action. This was a negative result for Ireland, and there will likely be an emphasis from the Government on these three SDGs as part of the recovery package. While we are all preparing for a change in dialogue and a focus on climate action once the new government is formed, SDG 12 (which focuses on responsible consumption and production) presents a similarly large opportunity. In particular, companies that have already implemented a more circular model for resource management and waste streams are benefiting from a first-mover advantage in the circular economy. A business strategy aligned to the SDGs can create value  Given the significant opportunities and risks associated with the UN SDGs, companies that excel at identifying and incorporating these issues into their strategy enjoy a competitive advantage in the marketplace and among institutional investors. It is increasingly clear that sustainability and return on investment are connected. To help boards understand and shape the total impact of a company’s strategy and operations externally – on the environment, the company’s consumers and employees, the communities in which it operates, and other stakeholders – and internally on the company’s performance, I suggest a five-part framework (refer to Table 2). This framework for board oversight recognises that creating long-term value increasingly requires companies to understand the impact of their strategies on key stakeholders – investors, employees, customers, and communities – as well as on the natural resources and supply chains that the company relies on, all of which are fundamental elements of the SDGs. An integrated commercial strategy encourages companies and boards to widen their aperture for a fuller view of sustainability, strategy, and long-term performance. Wherever the company is on the sustainability journey, this framework can help to drive a robust conversation about what sustainability risks and opportunities may impact the company’s key stakeholders, corporate strategy, and long-term performance, and how they will be addressed. Aligning with SDGs will help businesses identify risks and opportunities that may have been omitted from previous analysis and will also provide them with a better understanding of their stakeholders and their relevance to those stakeholders. By communicating their progress towards SDGs, companies can enhance their reputation both internally (with employees) and externally (with the broader public); this transparency contributes to enhanced trust and confidence in the companies’ operations and contribution to society. The improved trust may then result in more robust and sustainable economic, environmental, and social performance. Companies that identify and incorporate these issues into their strategy will stand apart as forward-thinking organisations, future-proofed, well-managed, and able to recover quickest in a post-COVID-19 environment. In conclusion The changes we have experienced in the first months of this year will have a devastating impact on the global economy, but this in no way diminishes the relevance of the UN SDGs despite being conceived in a more stable environment. Businesses that have already aligned their strategies and practices have shown enhanced resilience – sometimes in unexpected ways. In the absence of a crystal ball, it is hard to predict the next six months, let alone the next decade. Still, there are many indicators that the operating environment will be even more favourable to businesses that effectively integrate sustainability into their core business strategy. Organisations that rise to these challenges and show leadership will be rewarded by their stakeholders and gain access to new opportunities. Those that fail to act may put their margins and even their business models at risk.   Caroline Pope is Associate Director at KPMG Sustainable Futures, a cross-functional team of experts who help corporate and public sector clients plan and execute programmes addressing environmental, social and governance topics, decarbonisation, and long-term value creation.

Jun 02, 2020
Strategy

The accountancy profession needs to engage with  how emerging technologies like artificial intelligence will disrupt traditional career pathways. By Dr Patrick Buckley, Dr Elaine Doyle, and Ruth Gilligan Information technology has become inextricably embedded in virtually every aspect of our professional and personal lives. Data about what we do, what we are interested in, with whom we communicate and where we go can all be captured and stored at a scale unimaginable even five years ago. Technology giants such as Google, Amazon and Alibaba are engaged in a competitive race to capture the data generated by this new reality, lending credence to The Economist’s claim in 2017 that “the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. The data captured is valuable for several reasons. For one, traditional activities such as advertising can be personalised and optimised to a revolutionary degree – think of Facebook. Data also allows companies to build entirely new products. For example, the utility of Google Search results depends on analysing what information others have found useful in the past. A further value assigned to these data streams is linked to the development of artificial intelligence (AI). A host of mathematical and algorithmic tools – some novel, some more mature but turbocharged by the advent of big data – has propelled the development of AI. Leaving aside philosophical questions such as to what extent these systems are intelligent, every-day and now familiar examples of AI (Siri and Alexa, for example), are demonstrably practical and effective. These visible successes, combined with the breakneck pace of development, pose a multitude of questions about the impact of AI on our future – not least its impact on the future of work. The future of work Concerns about automation and jobless futures are not new. Two centuries ago, Ricardo proposed that technology caused unemployment. In the 1930s, Keynes predicted that new technologies would reduce the demand for human labour. In the 1980s, Leontief compared the role of a human in the modern economy to that of a horse in agricultural production – first diminished, and then eliminated by automation. Until the advent of AI, the consensus was that such predictions were overly simplistic. While new technologies can have a destructive effect on a particular industry or sector, their introduction often leads to increased opportunities in other areas. The overall effect is to change the structure of the jobs market, rather than result in a reduction in the work available. The jobs eliminated by new technology are replaced by jobs requiring higher-order cognitive skills (e.g. a robot replaces a welder but requires a software engineer to program it). Though this can be frightening and stressful for individuals, at a societal level, as long as education and training enable people to adapt to changing conditions by acquiring new skills, the long-term impact of technological change on the jobs market should be positive. The rise of AI has disrupted this consensus. In brief, the suggestion is that the human monopoly on tasks requiring significant cognitive processing is being broken. Education and training may become ladders to nowhere if AI systems that match or surpass human cognitive abilities are feasible. A glance at the world today demonstrates that many tasks humans once performed are being automated by AI systems, with virtually all studies showing that the process is accelerating as the capability of AI systems improves. For example, two Oxford economists, Frey and Osborne, predict that 47% of jobs in the US will be automated by 2030. The impact of AI Investigating how this disruption is likely to impact the accountancy profession, our research profiled the tasks that practitioners perform at different stages of their career and at three levels: trainee/junior, manager, and director/partner. We then calculated the probability of each task being automated by aggregating information from a range of sources, including academic studies and reports from professional, industry and government organisations. Our analysis makes it clear that, taken as a whole, accountants perform an enormous variety of tasks for their clients and employers. Some tasks, such as preparing accounts or tax returns, are considered extremely vulnerable to automation. Others, such as designing effective financial control strategies for clients, building relationships, or mentoring juniors and trainees are not. This feature of the profession has two implications: Given the enormous variety of tasks performed and roles fulfilled by accountants, assigning a single probability and suggesting that this represents an objective assessment of how vulnerable the profession as a whole is to automation is a simplification to the point of absurdity. The large number of tasks not vulnerable to automation means that for the foreseeable future, the profession as a whole does not face an existential threat. Tasks like designing effective tax strategies or the financial structures of businesses will require a mix of quantitative and soft skills as well as a deep, strategic understanding of the world beyond the capabilities of AI. Career pathways However, this does not mean that the profession can afford to be complacent. Analysing the potential effects of AI at different stages of a traditional career pathway reveals that the tasks vulnerable to automation belong predominately to early career stages. This is particularly the case for trainees/juniors, but also applies substantially to certain work at manager level. Therefore, while accountants may always be needed, the current economic case for most trainees and some managers may disappear. This presents challenges for the profession. Most obvious is the need to redesign career pathways in response to these trends. A traditional career pathway through the profession follows the well-worn path of trainee to manager to director to partner. A key question for firms and the profession is how to replenish senior ranks if the bottom rungs of the career progression ladder are removed. If there are no trainees or junior staff, where does the next generation of managers, directors and partners come from? A second, related issue is that of skills and knowledge development. Generally, the more experienced individuals in organisations perform the more cognitively demanding tasks. The tasks most vulnerable to AI automation are often seen as repetitive and undemanding. At first glance, the automation of such tasks may seem a positive development for employers and employees alike. However, this perspective takes no account of the knowledge and skills gained by performing these tasks in a real-world setting. For example, designing effective tax strategies requires experience that can only be acquired by spending time working on basic tax compliance. It may be possible to develop the skills and aptitudes required by more senior practitioners without a long, real-world apprenticeship. However, there is no evidence to support this position. At the very least, it seems likely that the entry pathway to the profession will need restructuring, with substantial changes required to curricula and entry requirements. In an extreme case, firms may face severe skills shortages a few years after engaging in significant automation. Higher-order skills may atrophy and disappear due to the lack of entry-level positions rupturing the supply pipeline of employees capable of performing higher-order tasks. Perception of the profession A third potential issue is the attractiveness of the profession to new entrants. If some of the tasks traditionally performed by managers are automated, then this will presumably have the effect of reducing the total number of individuals required at this level. The profession may evolve towards a position where a relatively small number of individuals (say 5%) do high-value, well-remunerated work while the other 95% are relegated to low-value, poorly paid tasks. A rational and risk-weighing decision-maker, the very type of intellect the profession seeks to attract, may select away from careers where the odds seem stacked against being able to access opportunity. In the long run, this selection bias may have a significant adverse effect on the profession’s ability to attract high-calibre candidates. The future of the profession Forecasting the future is a notoriously uncertain endeavour. Any predictions regarding the impact of AI on the accountancy profession (including those in this article) should be treated with scepticism. Reports of the imminent demise of the accountancy profession are, in all likelihood, greatly exaggerated. However, it would be equally short-sighted to discount the potential impact of AI on the profession entirely. It does seem likely that in the medium-term, the traditional career pathways associated with accountancy will be significantly dislocated. Responding to this will require meaningful, profession-wide dialogue and debate about how the next generation of accountants will be recruited, educated, and motivated.   Dr Patrick Buckley and Dr Elaine Doyle lecture at the Kemmy Business School, University of Limerick, and Ruth Gilligan is a Tax Associate at PwC Ireland.

Jun 02, 2020