Accountants: Don’t Get Left Behind

Accountancy is an ancient profession going back more than 7,000 years. The materials, marks and symbols those primitive accountants used are very different from modern accounting tools today (or they should be!). Like all professions, accountancy has had to move with the times, using technology to become more efficient and responding to the changing expectations, needs and social pressures of its customers and the wider world.

That evolution, however, hasn’t stopped with the advent of computers. It’s an ongoing process that modern day accountants like yourself need to keep up with—because if you don’t, your clients will go to an accountant that does.

Here are some of the concepts and technologies you should be researching and looking to adopt if you haven’t done so already.

Cloud-based accounting

Accounting in the cloud allows for collaboration and access to real-time data anywhere there’s an internet connection and is probably the most important change to adopt if you haven’t already. It’s more efficient and far less prone to data loss (with information held on multiple servers in multiple locations and instant back-ups). It’s also much more customer-friendly, as it gives your clients the power to access their real-time data too.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

AI has gone remarkably quickly from sci-fi concept to working model to adoption in multiple sectors. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) has started exploring the use of artificial intelligence to improve existing services for its members and other audiences. It already has an AI assistant, still in Beta mode that you can talk to.

If AI is a foreign concept to you, it is best to read up on the topic and find out how AI is already being used in accountancy and other sectors, from simple customer service chatbots to working with big data. It’s fine to not be ready to adopt it just yet, but it’s not okay to be clueless about the impact it’s already having—or not give a thought to how, in the future, you may implement it, work alongside it and expand your own role once AI is doing more of the donkey work.

As a starting point, ICAEW has an enlightening recording of it’s IT Faculty’s event,  Artificial intelligence: what does it mean for the future of accountancy?, in which artificial intelligence expert Professor Moshe Vardi discussed the growth of artificial intelligence and its impact on the accounting profession.

AI can deliver new insights and give accountants more time to spend on strategic and advisory tasks, so try not to see it as the enemy that will replace you!

Game changers: cryptocurrency and blockchain

What could be more disruptive to accountants, used to constantly dealing with money in one form or another, than to come face to face with a currency that isn’t money? Cryptocurrency is digital and virtual; twin concepts that traditional accountants with limited exposure to the digital environment may find hard to grasp.

HMRC themselves are only just getting to grips with cryptocurrency and what associated losses and gains mean in terms of income and tax, and admit the situation is evolving all the time. Last December, they issued guidance on Cryptoassets for Individuals which is a good place to start if your knowledge is limited.

Blockchain technology has the potential to automate many basic transactional tasks in accountancy, including asset management, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a role for accountants. Analysing the data that blockchain delivers and putting it to best use will be a task for experienced accountants. Again, blockchain isn’t on its way—it’s already here. IT, music, international development, medicine, and the freelance marketplace are just some of the industries already making use of it.

In 2016, Faye Chua, portfolio head (business focus) for the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), was already warning accountants that they should be learning about these technologies in the ACCA’s Drivers of change and future skills report.

“Knowledge of new models for business, funding, payments and services such as blockchain-related applications, including distributed ledger, will be vital for all professional accountants,” she stressed.

Digital collaboration and organisation tools

Internal messaging systems. Time management, collaboration and task allocation software. Whether its Trello or similar, or a purpose-built solution for your company, don’t dismiss digital organisation systems as unnecessary and only needed by those who can’t organise themselves. Used wisely, these systems can improve project oversight, collaboration, staff performance, time management, communication and efficiency, and genuinely make your life easier.

Widening the scope

With new technology and new demands comes the opportunity—and necessity—to widen your scope. A 2016 survey of 1400 chief financial officers, commissioned by the finance and accounting recruitment company Robert Half Management Resources, found that the vast majority of them expected senior accountants to have increasing amounts of their time devoted to non-traditional functions, such as strategic planning and information technology projects. On average, the CFOs surveyed believe that a typical senior accountant spends just over a third of his or her time on such non-traditional functions, and they projected this figure to climb steadily over time.

With basic tasks increasingly automated, now is the time to branch out into accountancy’s side-lines, higher functions and affiliated disciplines, developing expertise in those areas.

Pay and opportunity gap reviews

Companies with 250 employees or more are already obliged to collect gender pay gap data and submit it to the Government, but you should be looking at this data whether legally obliged to do so or not. You should also consider collecting equality of opportunity (‘opportunity gap’) data, and apply this not just to gender but other potential discriminatory factors, such as race. Does everyone in your company get the same opportunities for learning and promotion? Are employees doing the same work paid equally, and if not, is there potential justification for the difference (e.g. experience, qualifications)?

Video conferencing

Professional video conferencing systems can save companies time and money, and beyond that, significantly improve their carbon footprint. There is now an economical and ecological pressure on all businesses, not just accountancy, to look at how many of their employees’ international and domestic trips are truly essential, especially where flights are involved.

Flexible meetings and flexible working

Accountancy is often seen as a stuffy and tradition-bound profession that’s slow and reluctant to change. But modern meetings are often far from traditional. To keep clients—and to keep clients happy—you will need to have some flexibility. If they want to meet at your office, fine. Do they prefer to meet at their office? OK, if that’s feasible. Want to meet up at a coffee shop? Or Skype? That should be okay too. The lines are moving and blurring, so keep up.
Flexible working, including non-standard work patterns and working from home, can make for happier employees. It can also make it easier for them to remain in or return to work around caring commitments, parenthood and illness, meaning you get to retain their expertise and continue to benefit from your investment in their development. Clear expectations and monitoring of workload can help ensure this remains a positive rather than a negative innovation.

Finally…

If you’re now feeling the urge to retreat into your shell with your trusty leather-bound ledger and your inkpot, taking your 9-5 suited and booted clerks with you, take heart. Remember that our fear of something tends to be worse than the thing itself, and that fear of the unknown is often our greatest fear—so remove that fear by being proactive.

Take the time to learn about these new ideas and technologies. Try to look for the possibilities rather than worry about being replaced by a computer, and don’t worry; not everything has changed. Let Faye Chua’s words about your future role reassure you:

“Above all, professional accountants will be expected to continue to make professional judgements and, in doing so, to exercise the highest standards of integrity, independence and scepticism.”

To understand more about blockchain, you could start with the Government Office for Science’s 2016 report, Distributed Ledger Technology: beyond blockchain. You can also read the full Drivers of change and future skills report by the ACCA.