Strategic learning and development in professional service firms

Creating competitive advantage

Managing Partners' Forum award winner

The business model of professional service firms is rapidly evolving.

New technologies, changing competitive landscapes and complex client requirements are some of the factors that are fundamentally shifting how professional firms do business. 

Saïd Business School and Meridian West have co-authored a series of papers that seek to answer some of the most important strategic questions on the agenda of professional services today.

The insight series was awarded Best Knowledge Provision to Clients winner at the Managing Partners' Forum Awards 2020.

Framing the series

Read launch paper
abstract wall of geometric shapes

In knowledge-based businesses, only by connecting a firm’s strategic ambitions with its organisational-level learning agenda will it be possible to effect change, and to develop the capabilities required to deliver tomorrow’s results.

In this paper, we provide an overview of key research themes we will showcase in the upcoming papers to help firms align their strategic learning and development activity, not only to drive their competitive advantage, but to position themselves as a leading employer in the sector, and to attract and retain the most capable talent.

Designing your firm of the future

Read paper 1
looking up a minimalist staircase

This opening paper explores how L&D activity can be a tool to future-proof your firm and enhance its ability to deliver on the business strategy.

Firms are now implementing significant change programmes to re-define their market position and understand their required future skills and capabilities. This presents an ideal opportunity to help create a more strategic partnership between L&D and senior leadership, utilising the L&D function as an 'organisational development' unit to drive change.

Leading strategic change

Read paper 2
woman gesticulating

Paper 2 explores how L&D can best support firms in leading strategic change, contributing in particular to the implementation phase of such initiatives. Rather than seeing change as a one-off exercise at a single moment in time, we consider the skill sets, behaviours and mindsets, which will best enable change to be embedded in a firm, and give examples of how L&D has been used as a strategic lever to create these capabilities.

As a core element of this work, we discuss how the L&D function must connect closely both with senior partners and the HR team to ensure alignment of objectives and also to minimise any derailment of the change process.

Early career pathways

Read paper 3
young students walking

Since the financial crash of 2008, various factors have impacted significantly on the early career phases of professionals: changes in client expectations, new technologies enabling greater automation of more commoditised tasks, and changes to the overall business models of firms.

Prior to these fundamental changes, career paths in professional firms typically progressed in a linear format, from trainee/consultant to partner, via a series of transitions, usually within the same firm.

The external influences described above, together with increasing demands for more flexible career paths from new entrants, are disrupting that linear progression. The old-style career ladder is being converted to something akin to a jungle gym or a 'career lattice.'

In this paper, we examine the drivers of change affecting early career pathways and present case studies on how professional firms can best equip, and retain, their talent through strategic learning and development.

Career pathways for senior leaders

Read paper 4
hands writing in notepad

We explore key career transition points, including the preparation of partners to take on management roles and also the complex issues of career transitioning towards the end of a partner’s career. Whilst there is often significant L&D investment in preparing individuals for partnership, and in their early years as a partner, managing the transition to a practice management or managing partner role often lacks structured preparation. Moreover, the required skill sets are quite distinct. 

Practitioners previously focused solely on fee-earning are now expected to lead large groups – or even the whole partnership – with challenges ranging from setting the strategy to building consensus and momentum for its implementation.

We examine how to best prepare partners for these complex management challenges. In addition, we consider how L&D has been used to support them over the longer term, considering steps such as their subsequent re-integration into client portfolios once they no longer hold management roles.

In conversation with...

During our extensive research into the changing nature of professional services, Dr Nigel Spencer, Stephen Newton and Nick Blandford interviewed leaders at the forefront of professional services today, delivering practical learning based on their real-world experiences:

  • Christina Blacklaws discusses the developments in pathways available to early career professionals today.
  • Dame Janet Gaymer explores the changing nature of the legal services market, and the implications for legal sector careers.
  • Jonny Searle MBE reviews his learnings from developing parallel careers in the worlds of elite sport and professional services, exploring how he negotiated career transitions over the past 30 years.
  • Kate Lye highlights five key talent development challenges along with insights into how to tackle them.

Our Leading Professional Service Firms programme


Lead your firm towards success using an exclusive framework to help develop and sustain a competitive advantage.

This six-week programme for leaders, and aspiring leaders, provides you with the opportunity to up-skill in areas of leadership, strategy, and innovation, empowering participants to drive competitive advantage. Taught by Oxford University and industry experts, you’ll leverage a unique framework developed by faculty from our dedicated PSF research centre, including some of the world's foremost thinkers in the field, to address the challenges distinct to Professional Service Firms.

Further research

Our dedicated Oxford research centre

The University is renowned for conducting leading-edge research that forms the backbone of our programmes. It gives our participants and students access to pioneering thinking, knowledge and expertise.

Collaboration with the ACCA

In this article, we seek to explore the common challenges for the professions overall, focusing in particular on the critical issue of talent development. Through this ‘human capital’ lens, we look across the broad range of professional services, highlighting potential future strategies for a rapidly changing environment.

Read the full article 'Creating effective learning "eco-systems" for the future world of professional services.'

Listen to a podcast about this collaboration.


Talk to us about our insights series, or how we may help develop your organisation's leadership.