Digital skills have become even more important for accountants

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For years ACCA has been highlighting how technology will impact the accounting and finance profession. In fact, digital is one of the seven quotients it defined in 2016 as core competencies for the future accountant.

More recently in early 2020 ACCA released its report The digital accountant: Digital skills in a transformed world, which considers the implications of the digital quotient in the context of digitalisation of organisations and their future growth. It talks about the extent to which accountancy and finance professionals should be digitally knowledgable and the skills they need to develop.

The coronavirus factor

But this was all pre-Covid-19 and reflected a broader trend of technological transformation that was already underway. As described in a Harvard Business Review article in March 2020, for years organisations have been transitioning to a digital core of software, data and networks, and along the way seeking scale (by producing more at lower costs), scope (via greater production variety) and learning (via improvement and innovation).

Adopting this was already a challenge for organisations (young and small all the way up to established multinationals), but the coronavirus pandemic has made it even harder by adding a fourth dimension to the scale, scope and learning model: virtual working. This has quickly created a digital relationship between employer and employee, whereas previously the digital transition had focused almost entirely on the relationship between organisation and customer.

With people working remotely from home and the office becoming less important, businesses are now not only concerned with performance gains through digitisation, but its role as a fundamental aspect of employment and public health. This is creating a digital divide with the potential to not only cause cracks in organisations but in society also. Businesses unable to quickly adapt to this ‘new normal’ will fall behind, increasing the financial risks to the business and its employees, as well as the health risks and mental distress of its workforce.

The challenges and opportunities for accountants

Put simply, accounting professionals, practices and finance functions able to use technology well to maintain operations and adapt business models by fast-tracking digital transformation will be more secure and more competitive.

For accountants in practice the impact of the coronavirus can mean several things from a technology adoption perspective: 

  1. Practices that have already embraced new technology will be better prepared and less prone to service outages; those that haven’t would benefit from doing so quickly
  2. Clients will need urgent support to instigate their own digital transition while also mapping a route through the crisis, all of which could mean leaning more heavily on their accountants. Clients will be onboarding digital systems and software; undertaking urgent financial and other data analysis; forming survival and recovery strategies; applying for emergency government funding; implementing remote working
  3. However, clients will also seek to cut costs, which could lead to reduced budget for third-party finance services, particularly if they are not perceived to be adding value or are not digitally ready to do so
  4. Therefore, accounting firms, as well as identifying and onboarding relevant technology, will need to upskill staff and increase capacity accordingly

For organisational finance functions this can mean:

  1. Working in and leading remote teams may well be the new normal, so quickly getting comfortable with teleconferencing and working in the cloud, among other things, is a must
  2. The automation of aspects of accounting, such as data entry, bookkeeping and compliance, which is already well underway, will only increase
  3. The role of an accountant in an organisation will become more strategic, advisory and focused on adding value (again a trend already underway pre-coronavirus but given renewed impetus)

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Future skillsets now

For both aspects of the profession, this will place greater value on professionals with hybrid skillsets. This means being digitally and technologically savvy, which can extend as far as being able to read and write code, but also simply understanding a software or app’s organisational and commercial purpose and being able to work with it. It is being able to see the broader organisational picture and how financial information fits within it and can add value to it, and then being able to effectively communicate your insights to key stakeholders. 

These are people with a strong technical accounting and finance knowledge base (eg the ACCA Qualification), coupled with curious minds and professional scepticism; they’re project managers happy working digitally with deeper and richer data sets; they’re analytical, critical and able to challenge peers and seniors; and they have strong commercial and business acumen, as well as amazing soft skills (eg interpersonal, emotional intelligence, negotiation, presenting etc).

It is professionals such as these that will be better able to help their firms, clients, employers and organisations through the current crisis and to flourish beyond. Accountants will need to be trusted advisers to customers and trusted business partners to stakeholders, managers and colleagues.

It might seem a tall order, but it will make for a rewarding, exciting and valued career. And there are plenty of ways to boost your digital know-how. While learning on the job will form a large part of people’s learning, being proactive in your digital knowledge acquisition is also essential. Many universities offer digital skills courses and training programmes, while there are also online courses, some for free. 

Watch tutorials and guides on YouTube; find relevant groups and content on LinkedIn; network with the purpose of connecting with people who can help you; and volunteer or undertake internships that will provide you with hands on digital experience.

Good luck!

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