You can't have free spirits and make them toe the line

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The Independent Online
Without being unkind to the northern neighbour of the US, it is probably fair to say that events in Canada do not always excite outsiders. But Arthur Andersen's attempt to poach KPMG's Canadian practice has certainly attracted plenty of interest - and not just in accounting circles.

On the face of it, this is down to that old-fashioned enthusiasm for a fist-fight. Although the public utterances are couched in the terms you would expect of professional people, it seems that the episode has created a host of tensions both within the two firms and between them. Moreover, given the volatile state of the upper echelons of the accounting business - mergers and defections seem to be expected at every turn - none of the other firms can rest easy, either.

But the significance of the affair - however it turns out after Friday's vote by KPMG Canada's partners - goes far beyond what one commentator has called "a wonderful spectacle". At a time when organisations of all sorts are starting to talk of their employees as "knowledge workers", it shows just how hard managing such people can be.

To put it bluntly, they are not inclined just to get on with their work and tip their hats to superiors. People working in professional services firms have always had a pretty good sense of their own worth, and that tendency has only been encouraged by all the talk of "intellectual" and "human" capital.

If that were not enough, many of the firms for which they work have sought to step up their global integration - apparently in the name of better serving clients. The most obvious result of such an aim is to become more overtly "managed", with individual partners giving executive boards a lot of power to make decisions on their behalf.

The trouble is that various events in the accounting and management consulting arenas suggest the two trends are at odds with each other. It is often thought that accountants and management consultants are more inclined to be managed in a corporate fashion than, say, lawyers or advertising "creatives". But it seems even they cannot be relied on to toe the corporate line.

In the announcement of the plan to link the KPMG and Andersen Canadian operations, Spencer Lanthier, head of KPMG Canada, made it clear that concerns about the high cost of an international reorganisation and the number of years it would take to complete were important factors behind the decision.

But if members of professional services firms are no longer as committed to their colleagues as they used to be, the businesses they work for are vastly different from how they used to be. While strategy firms such as Bain & Co are wary of over-expansion, the Big Five firms - which stretch beyond accounting and consulting into legal services and other areas - are committed to playing on a global scale.

Indeed, it is reckoned that one of the reasons Arthur Andersen has become so interested in picking up other practices is that it is locked in a dispute that could well result in the hugely successful Andersen Consulting going its own way. If that happens, Arthur Andersen, the accountancy-based firm, will be some way down the pecking order.

Much has been made of how KPMG is less an international firm and more a federation. But the dispute within Andersen would appear to suggest that the firm widely assumed to have achieved the elusive goal of international integration has not been as successful as was thought. Meanwhile, the merger between Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand, and KPMG's attempt to join up with Ernst & Young, seemed to demonstrate that there were many shades of integration in between.

Even in the next tier down, there are accusations and counter-accusations about the degree to which firms are truly national entities or collections of local firms.

One result of all this is that we might yet see the arrival of the niche firms - predicted since the number of large accounting firms started to contract. Another is that all those corporations being encouraged to see their star talents more as free agents or partners than employees might find the old command-and-control approach more appealing.