Introducing the NextGenPSF Project

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and its ‘grand challenge’ of artificial intelligence (AI) is predicated on the existence of a substantial yet bridgeable gap between new and emerging AI technologies and their enormous potential for application. This project focuses on how this gap might be bridged or closed, with a focus on mid-size legal and accounting professional services firms.

The project seeks to examine the added value that mid-sized accounting and law firms can gain from leveraging the potential for AI technologies. We will study the institutional context shaping mid-sized professional services firms, the strategies, business models and innovation practices of early adopters, and the impact of technological assimilation on these firms, to provide a critical, systemic assessment of the challenges and implications of using AI in mid-size professional services firms.

"Artificial intelligence [is] a somewhat nebulous branch within computer science that seeks to build machines capable of what humans would regard as ‘intelligent’ behaviour. Of course, what is meant by intelligent behaviour is also difficult to pin down. Natural language processing and machine learning are specific subfields or applications of artificial intelligence."

(Alarie, Niblett & Yoon, 2018)

Academic Insights

The project aims to understand the institutional context, or ‘landscape’, within which law and accountancy firms operate, and therefore the contexts in which AI based innovations can emerge, as well as the practices of innovating firms using AI in the two sectors, and co-create understandings of the opportunities and barriers with input from the sector.

This will involve:

  • Identifying and mapping key stakeholders, intermediaries and representative bodies in the professional services sectors
  • Engaging and understanding the respective roles of the stakeholders, intermediaries and representative bodies and how they shape and are shaped by the activities of professional services firms
  • Conducting interviews and focus groups with the stakeholders, intermediaries and representative bodies about the adoption and diffusion of AI technologies in the legal and accounting sectors
  • Rapid research reviews relating to AI in professional services firms focusing on business model innovation, operations, service innovation, skills and employment
  • Co-organising workshops with professional services firms and researchers from AI, operations, business model innovation and service innovation to explore and describe challenges from the perspectives of firms

Scenario Planning

Using technology roadmapping together with foresight techniques based on scenario planning, we will examine possible futures involving AI technologies and their application into mid-sized law and accountancy firms. The aim is to produce a set of scenarios at a specific time horizon which allow detailed exploration of some of the implications of potential developments.

This will involve:

  • Understanding the rate and direction of technological change in A.I. technologies
  • Understanding to what extent have these already been applied and to what extent are they close to real world application
  • Understanding, evaluating and sharing an understanding of the values, risks, opportunities and threats that are arising, and how evaluations of situations vary based on circumstances and dynamics
  • Consulting with academics with an understanding of these technologies, industry bodies, and directly with firms especially in the foresight/scenario planning workshops
  • Conducting horizon scanning to review ongoing changes to AI development and professional services firms

Design Sprints

We will work closely with a number of law and accounting firms using AI to undertake focussed exploratory prototyping projects using a ‘design sprint’ approach through which the potentials and implications of AI will be explored and assessed. ‘Design sprints’ are time-limited projects in which the research team works closely with a group of people from one or more firms enabling them to be active co-researchers developing strategies to seize the potential of AI.

This will involve:

  • Defining and planning ‘design sprints’ with a number of mid-sized law and accounting firms recruited
  • Conducting interviews with staff from participating firms before and after the sprint
  • Running the design sprints in parallel, which together will produce a comparative and related set of proposals or strategies rooted in organisational practices of these firms; activities will include a series of workshops, developing service prototype mock-ups, data gathering, sense-making
  • Running training sessions with participants from firms in design thinking to build capacity

Overall Project Plan

The project is structured in three phases:

  • Phase 1 is about exploring and scoping the landscape that legal and accounting firms operate in to understand the divers and inhibitors to the adoption of AI
  • Phase 2 is about working with mid-market firms and stakeholders to design strategies to support the effective implementation of AI technologies
  • Phase 3 is about cascading the learning from the project to a wider group of firms to support the future competitiveness of next generation service firms