Academics from Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) have been awarded a £1.8m ($2.3m) to accelerate the take up of digital technology amongst UK law and accountancy firms.

The major research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Innovate UK, will be known as Technology in Professional Services (TiPS). It will build on an earlier study which enabled Lancaster researchers to understand the barriers preventing professional services firms from adopting digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI).

The accelerator is part of a programme called Next Generation Professional and Financial Services, funded by Innovate UK and ESRC. The programme aims to help professional service sectors, including accounting and law, and the financial service sectors, including insurance, lending, advisory and payment services, develop and use digital technologies.

The £1.8m grant will allow the research team to put this previous learning into action; providing practical, tailored support to help medium-sized and smaller firms become more productive, develop new services, and to use technology to make services accessible to under-represented individuals and organisations. The research will also provide more general insights into how various forms of innovation adoption can best be accelerated.

The LUMS team will be led by Professor Martin Spring and includes Professors James Faulconbridge and Katy Mason. They will join forces with Professor Tim Vorley, Dr Tzameret Rubin, Dr Francisco Trincado Munoz and Hilary Smyth-Allen from Oxford Brookes University and Derek Southall from Hyperscale Group Limited.

The service industry represents almost 80% of the UK economy. Financial and professional services account for around £190bn of the UK’s ‘Gross Value Added’ (a productivity metric that measures contribution to an economy) and provide in the region of 2.2 million jobs.

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However, while digital innovation – and specifically the use of technologies based on AI – promises to unlock yet more value within these UK professions, there are a number of barriers to small and medium sized firms taking on new technologies.

Commenting on this, Spring said: “Our research tells us that these challenges sometimes arise from uncertainty about which technology to use and what benefit it would bring, but also due to the traditional roles and identities of professionals working in these sectors. Traditional education, training, regulation and career structures also present barriers when it comes to adopting new technologies.

“With this grant, we will be able to translate our earlier findings into tangible support, to help firms overcome adoption obstacles and harness new technology to help their staff and enhance the services they provide. This major project will provide structured methods and useful resources to help guide law and accountancy firms to overcome any barriers, accelerate their technology adoption and ultimately become more competitive. And the project is especially timely due to the recent interest in technologies such as ChatGPT, which has stimulated awareness of the potential for technologies to be used in knowledge-based work such as law and accountancy.”

By creating an environment where technology adoption is less intimidating and risky, the project aims to guide firms to find the right technological solutions for them. By building confidence in professional firm leaders to embed innovative technologies into workplaces, firms will be able to unlock more potential and further enhance the service provided to customers.

Adopting an inclusive approach, the project will cater for firms at different stages of technology readiness – from beginners to those who already use some technology, but would like to extend its use. Depending on the starting point of the firm, three types of ‘acceleration’ and support will be offered. The methods used will be based on the well-established Innovation Catalyst approach developed at Lancaster.

By working closely with each of the firms and assessing their issues and outcomes, the researchers aim to gather insights into the most successful methods and create ‘roadmaps’ to share more widely for the benefit of the wider sector, working with a range of stakeholders including professional bodies such as the Law Society and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).