Accountants of the future

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Having trained first as a chartered surveyor, then retraining as an accountant with a Big Four firm in the 1990s, and now as managing partner of Saffery Champness, I am no stranger to change. But the changes we are seeing now in the accountancy profession, driven largely by technology, are unprecedented and gathering pace.

As I joined Saffery Champness in 2004, Mark Zuckerburg was launching thefacebook, a networking platform for Harvard students. Just 15 years later, that system’s descendant has more than two billion users worldwide. In that time, a whole new pool of digitally native talent has emerged. Given the pace of technological change, just what the accountancy role will be for this demographic is a challenge that all firms are grappling with, and that may require a rethink of what it means to be an accountant.

Competing influences

Of course, Facebook is just one technological phenomenon that has radically impacted society, culture and business. For the accountancy profession, there continues to be a blend of both upward disruption caused by new innovations, and downward pressure from regulators and policymakers seeking to keep pace.

In the UK, HMRC has accelerated its own digitalisation strategy to try and improve effectiveness, efficiency, and the taxpayer experience. The Connect system, which gives HMRC more access than ever before to track tax inconsistencies, was one of the key steps along this path and, notably, includes the monitoring of digital platforms such as Airbnb and eBay to assess income streams. Meanwhile, Making Tax Digital, expected to come more widely into force after April 2020, is intended to make ‘doing your taxes’ as technologically embedded in daily (well, quarterly) life as opening up Facebook (see also page 38). This is in addition to new tax policies on the horizon that build upon ideas such as the ‘digital services tax’.

The people question

The trend, then, looks to be for far greater integration of taxation within our digital lives. At the same time, the skills of the accountant will need to evolve in order to provide new services and to advise clients on this tech-centric tax system.

Fundamentally, if the client is using a phone for everything from ordering a taxi to buying groceries, why should the accountant still use clunky, inaccessible systems and processes that don’t fit with that way of life?

Some, though, would question whether there is a role for the accountant at all in the future. According to recent research from the Royal Society of Arts, finance and accounting is the sector most at ‘risk’ from AI and automation while, closer to home, 60% of accountants think basic processes will be fully automated within the next five years, according to 2018 research from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

The word ‘basic’, however, is key here. What we are now seeing is a shift in client expectation. Technical expertise (the ability to ‘do the job’) is an absolute given. Many day-to-day, yet time-intensive, aspects of the role will quickly become increasingly automated and therefore a decreasing part of the accountancy firm’s USP. However, those fearful that this means an end of the accountant should pause. The human factor will remain critical for clients; I think we are some considerable distance from the point where clients will want bespoke high-value advice delivered by a machine rather than a human.

Trusted advisers

As far as Saffery Champness is concerned, the future accountant will have a close focus on being their clients’ trusted adviser. This was echoed in ACCA’s Generation Next report which, while showing that 60% of global millennials believe technology will replace many entry-level roles in the profession, also found 84% agreed that technology would lead to a greater focus on higher-value work.

This has implications for talent today and tomorrow. The digital native will be an increasingly valuable asset for accountancy firms, and the skills that have been normalised through the technology embedded in daily life should not be underplayed by the younger generation of talent coming through the pipeline. Training models will also evolve to not only ensure acclimatisation with the new digital-first tax system, but also to put a strong emphasis on the client service experience and on consultancy.

Change must be managed carefully, however. The necessary upgrades can appear never-ending, and there is a natural capacity for training where, if not carefully managed, fatigue can set in.

Risks must be managed too. To take one example, greater integration of technology inevitably results in higher volumes of data collection, and striving for a better quality of tech-enabled client experience must go hand in hand with managing the security and reputational risk of issues such as data breaches. The future accountant must be mindful of these matters too.

Disruption looming

The role of the accountant is changing before our eyes and will no doubt change further. In many ways, the profession will always be playing catch-up as new technologies emerge and disrupt our work and personal lives, challenging the accepted ways of doing things and the norms of client service and experience.

We as a profession cannot stand still and the industry will increasingly require an ever more diverse pool of talent – diverse in terms of thought and skillset, as well as race and gender.

We must ask ourselves the fundamental question: what would an accounting firm look and feel like if you were to set one up today? That’s a question that the Horizon Scanning group at Saffery Champness is considering, and if we as a profession don’t strive to answer it, then disruption is more likely to shift from being an opportunity to a threat. 

Matthew Burton FCCA is managing partner at Saffery Champness.

This article was first published in the April 2019 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine

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