When you ask most people which profession is likely to transform the most in the future you may not expect to hear them answer “accounting.”
The accounting profession is on the cusp of change like never seen before. If you listen to Barry Melancon, the head of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), he believes the profession will change beyond recognition in the next five years. I am not alone in my agreement. Barry recently stated, “If we are willing to go beyond, to push on beyond the perceptions of what we do, we can create a profession that’s aligned with where the world is headed.”
What’s driving this? The answer is technology. It is fundamentally changing how our clients do business. Our clients are consumers of information, and technology has enabled all of us to gain access to knowledge that was once considered off limits, or at least more difficult to acquire.
Some leaders in the profession have predicted robotics would eliminate or automate up to 40 percent of basic accounting work by 2020. Even a more conservative estimate of that percentage will greatly impact how the profession will change, and with it, the role and skill set of what we now call an accountant.
The proliferation of software applications has automated and improved many of the functions within a company’s financial reporting system. Technology creates people and process efficiencies. Most technology- enabled accounting departments are run by fewer people, and those people can often have less formal training and education than historically required. This can be a plus for companies in achieving certain kinds of savings, but the risk is having accounting teams with under qualified resources. The role accountants need to play is not solely as technical experts, but also advisors in helping our clients interpret and action on data we collectively analyze to further results.
Information (both tax and GAAP) that was once held in research libraries at firms and gained through years of experience is now freely available on the Internet. That is a great thing to democratize knowledge. But again it requires the right ability to analyze and lead based on the accurate reading of today’s “big data.”
The sheer volume of data now available from the simplest of accounting systems provides insights that were not long ago only available to the most sophisticated companies. An abundance of data sounds like a good thing, but it’s easy to get lost in the weeds unless there is clear direction on measures. Setting business objectives around the right KPIs to manage and monitor is a success game-changer. Firms of today and tomorrow must be prepared to coach and guide clients in these success metrics.
These changes require CPAs to adapt to maintain and improve their clients’ experience. CPA firms now must be equipped with more than just technical skills to maintain their role as trusted advisors. One of our clients in the food and beverage sector commented: “Like most companies, we are unique in our processes, requirements, and business environment. We rely on our accounting firm to focus on what really matters and allow us to run our business while providing strategic oversight that positions our company for continued growth.”
To achieve that kind of trust with a client demands skills that go beyond compliance. Technical skills are considered table stakes, but other skills will be considered non-negotiable for accountants to keep pace with the demands of the future.
How can firms define those skills? They must:
• Be data masters. They need to understand data architecture. How to mine it, provide expert analysis and be able to easily client assimilate data into audit and tax services for them to be more efficient and precise
• Go beyond the labels of tax accountants and auditors. They need to also be able to think like system engineers and marketers and human resource experts to provide outsourced expertise to clients.
• Rethink their talent strategy. Recruiting and staff development for many entry-level functions will likely be replaced by technology and automation.
• Be constant pioneers of change. Internally within their firms, and externally in serving their clients, accountants of the future must embrace and advocate for innovation and change.
• Co-author the client success story. The accountant of the future will not only help clients interpret and navigate their current business impact, but will effectively help define and guide how clients can pave the journey ahead.
Tom Barry is Managing Partner at Green Hasson Janks. Learn more about Barry by visiting www.greenhassonjanks.com/aboutus/people/tom-barry or about the firm at greenhassonjanks.com.
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