Although businesses still need highly qualified finance talent, workplace automation is changing their traditional roles.

According to Brendan Sheehan, Managing Director of White Squires and a Global Council Member of ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), technology has "democratised" basic accounting functions.

According to research carried out by ACCA, "the development of intelligent automated accounting systems" was identified as the top issue set to impact accountancy over the next three to 10 years.

“Just as blogs democratised journalism, the same evolution is happening in the accounting space,” Sheehan says. “Accessing the functionality of a major ERP [enterprise resource planning] system is no longer only for the big end of town. These days, any SMB can have their own, fully integrated, cloud-based ERP system for as little as $49 a month. They no longer need to go to an accountant to process invoices, or tax returns and BAS. Companies can do it themselves with a very basic understanding.”

Combining workplace automation with new skills

ACCA lists several skills that are expected to decline in importance within the next three years due to workplace automation. They include manual calculation and tax filing for income, inheritance, employment and sales, as well as routine back-office work. Compliance reporting is also expected to become more automated through technology and analytical tools.

Although these may seem like core accountancy functions, it definitely doesn’t mean there is no longer a role for accountants. It’s simply that number-crunching alone won’t be enough, as workplace automation can take care of most of that. While core technical finance skills and ethics will remain critical, accountants will need to combine these skills with creativity, leadership, communication skills and emotional intelligence.

In much the same way people value the work of high-quality journalists – who are able to cut through the noise and really interpret the news for their audience – the real value accountants can provide in the future is in being able to navigate the vast amounts of data and create meaningful, insightful information that can support business decisions.

“The real value of accounting in the future is going to be about connecting the dots,” Sheehan says. “Not just for the finance department but for marketing and sales, HR, IT, procurement and so on. They’ll then link this out to data across the world: local and global stock market data, marketing research data, weather patterns and so on.”

“There’s data all over the place and the CFO’s role won’t be about processing transactions but about taking information from multiple different sources and connecting it in a way to create real business intelligence that improves revenue and profits, drives staff performance, increases market share and so on.”

Change agents

As companies are transforming for the digital age, CFOs and finance departments should be leading this change. To do so they need to start partnering with the business, which involves spending time with other departments. For accounting firms, this means working more closely with their clients to understand exactly how their clients’ businesses works – how people operate and interact.

To start partnering, Sheehan identifies a three-step, “QED” (Question, Empower, Drive) approach:

  1. Question what you are doing. Why does the finance department exist? What value do we provide to customers, both internal and external? What are the goals and objectives of the organisation and how are we supporting them? Are we doing this effectively? What can we do better?
  2. Empower your people: Give them permission to make change happen. CFOs need to empower finance departments with the tools and staff training they need to make them the agents of change. Don’t wait for change to happen to you. As Mark Zuckerberg says, “Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.”
  3. Drive change by walking around: Accountants need to get out of the office and stop hiding behind the phone and email. Get out of your seat. Get out in the business and start talking with people. Find out how it works. The ’80s mantra of “manage by walking around” has shifted to “working while walking around” as mobile technology allows you to be productive anywhere.

These points also apply to individuals. Job candidates need to understand their ‘why’ and how their values align with the organisation they want to work for.

They also need to learn the skills of change, even if they’re not yet responsible for driving it. They need to understand change and how it works, which includes change management and lean process improvement. Sheehan advises to stay ahead of the technology curve so that you can contribute meaningfully to making change happen.

“When we bring our clients through this process and help their staff to start working on their business instead of in it, they begin to see a real difference in staff engagement,” he says. “People who feel like they are contributing to change rather than have it happen to them are far more proactive about driving efficiency and productivity and partnering with the business.”

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According to Sheehan, accountants equipped with ACCA’s seven qualities for success are those who will thrive in this new environment.

“In future, business performance won’t simply be measured in profits and losses, but in how you use all forms of capital and what your organisation’s impact is on the economy, society and the environment,” Sheehan says.

“Being able to pull information together from many different sources and to create meaningful insight to help management, staff and investors make decisions requires skills well beyond those of the traditional accountant and has to be the pinnacle of the contribution a CFO can make to their organisation and society.”

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