Public practice accounting is similar to most other industries that are starting to feel the real impact of technology on the way in which we manage our work, our people and our clients.
It often seems that we’re rushing headlong into a future where the machines have taken over and our sense of ‘purpose’ in work and life is unclear. A recent US report on workforce employment predicted that, by 2025, ‘automation’ will have taken over nearly one-half of all jobs. Key areas of concern were manufacturing, the automotive industry and food services.
Of course, dystopian views of society and the future have been presented whenever people and communities have gone through periods of significant change. Currently, we’re seeing much of this discussion in popular culture which reflects our insecurities and concerns about the future. The changes we’re seeing in world politics also reflect a deepening sense of anxiety and dislocation within the middle classes.
The accounting industry has to a large extent been protected from this dislocation due to the regulatory nature of tax compliance in western societies. However, we’re certainly now seeing significant changes in the way that tax compliance work is being completed through changes in technology and outsourcing.
The ATO clearly recognises this, but also struggling with the technology required to give people access to data in a timely and effective manner. Just this week, the ATO apologised for a serious problem with its technology that saw critical systems go offline for more than two days. These issues will become more common as infrastructure struggles to keep up with the demands of big data and storage. However, there is not way back to the past at this time.
CSIRO’s report on ‘Tomorrow’s digitally enabled workforce,’ published in January 2016, made the observation that “computing speed, device connectivity, data volumes and many other indicators of technological capability are increasing at exponential, not linear, rates.” The report highlighted the significant changes that our society will see in relation to work roles and responsibilities in the next 25 years.
The report confirmed that technological and demographic change are likely to see the emergence of brand new job types, including
- Bigger, better data analysts
- Complex decision support analysts
- Customer experience experts
Within the accounting sector, there is clearly a growing role for data analysts who are able to help individuals and companies to make wiser choices. In its broadest sense, an analyst is someone who has the ability to gain an insight into the health of an individual or business from financial and other data. This insight can then be used by the adviser to develop solutions with feedback from the client.
Analysing something is all about taking a bunch of information and making sense of it in a way that is relevant to the situation, and then crafting a story. With experience, accountants should be able to critically analyse information to provide an insight into their clients’ current financial issues and help them to develop strategies to achive future financial goals. I like to use the term accountant – analyst to describe the accountant who is interested in looking beyond the numbers, who has a level of curiosity about clients and their financial situation.
Some of the technical skills required to be an effective business analyst include:
- Financial analysis
- Financial forecasting
- Business potential analysis
- Strategic insight
At a non-technical or ‘soft skills’ level, effective accountant-analysts also need the following skills
- Verbal and written communication
- Analysis and problem solving
- Coaching and persuasive skills
Clearly, public practice accounting is struggling to provide these skills to their staff in 2016. In an environment where we still place so much monetary value on tax compliance activities, it’s difficult to change mindsets, attitudes and behaviours. And often, we’re going about it in the wrong way, focusing on technological solutions (such as the latest software tool) rather than putting our minds, in the first instance, to our firm culture, values and behaviours.
The key to successful implementation of technology is to go back to a discussion within our businesses about who we are and the relationship we want to have with our clients. This discussion needs to start with all the people within our business and all the people we engage with, including clients and external networks. You’ll be surprised to hear that most clients are already having this discussion with other professional service providers. It’s simply a reflection of the changes we’re seeing in the ways we engage with each other and it’s being driven by greater automation through technology.
So, what does the ‘human face’ of technology look like for accountants in public practice?
Client experience is becoming increasingly important. Progressive firms are already focusing on ways to really engage with clients by using both technology and soft skills to create a stronger 2-way flow of communication. A leading accounting firm I spoke with last week talked about the role of the ‘professional concierge’ in managing client relationships, independent of the technical role. What are you doing to really enhance the ‘experience’ your clients have with you?
Collaboration including sharing of data and information about workflow is more than ever a reality for accounting firms. The more information that clients and staff have about the services the firm provides and how they are delivered, the more they are able to see the true value associated with these services. In the past, we’ve hidden this information from our clients, no wonder they’ve struggled to see the value in our services. How are you using technology to actually improve the level of collaboration with clients and staff?
Critical thinking is essential if accountants are to become more analytical in their roles and responsibilities. Of course we practice critical thinking every day when we’re addressing tax and accounting problems for our clients. However, this thinking is largely focused on using technical capabilities to address tax-related issues. A broader role for critical thinking which encourages curiosity in the client and a focus on the future is increasingly required to add value to our clients. What is your firm doing to encourage a stronger focus on critical thinking and analysis vs production and throughput of work?
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that there’s a strong future for accountants in public practice. However, their future will look different to that of the leaders and managers of firms who have been working in a tax accounting environment for many years. New skills are required to really take advantage of the changes that technology has brought to this industry
What is your firm doing to attract and engage quality young accountants?
In 2017, HTST is launching a new self-paced e-Learning program “The Young Accountant – Looking beyond the Numbers”.
This program will help prepare both new and existing accountants to the world of the accountant-analyst. If you would like further information on this program, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Dale Crosby | Senior Advisor | High Tech Soft Touch
www.hightechsofttouch.com.au | Ph 1300 872 792