What does it really mean to be a tech-savvy accountant?

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The proliferation of technology in the accountancy profession is fundamentally changing what it means to be an accountant.

But what does this really mean? Accountants as software programmers? IT specialists first, finance second? Trading the numbers for computer code?

For Matt Weston, managing director of specialist finance recruiters Robert Half UK, digital skills are an accountant’s greatest ally, particularly in light of the fast-approaching fourth industrial revolution.

‘Role requirements are changing and we have seen employer requirements change to meet them,’ he says. ‘In a traditional role like accounting, those with in-demand digital skills and technical know-how are in high demand and stand out among the competition.’

But, he emphasises, employers aren’t looking for the next great artificial intelligence (AI) developer among their accounting staff.

‘Rather, they’re looking for professionals with the ability to adapt and be resilient to continual technological change. Understanding risk, security and the potential benefits of new systems, combined with adaptability, will likely suffice in a “tech-savvy” accounting professional.’

This is a view shared by Alastair Barlow FCCA, founder of flinder, an accounting firm embracing new technology. ‘[Tech savvy] is understanding the art of the possible,’ he says.

Better conversations with data

For Barlow and flinder, this means working with an array of different data, and not just of the finance variety. They’ll bring together data from customer relationship management (CRM) systems, websites, electronic point of sale (EPOS) systems, sales and marketing systems, and combine it with finance data to provide businesses with new perspectives and richer information. The purpose of this approach is to ultimately facilitate better client conversations that will lead to the best possible decision making.

To help with this, they have gone a step further than many accounting practices – they’ve employed data engineers to support the accountants by extracting, extrapolating and finding new ways of communicating large volumes of varied data.

‘The accountants will tell the data engineers what they need and the conversations they want to have, and the engineers will facilitate the flow of data to make sense of it,’ says Barlow. ‘The endgame is sitting down and having a human discussion about client businesses – the technology just facilitates it.’

Indeed, as Weston noted, with companies increasingly deploying digital software packages such as Sage, NetSuite and Xero, which typically remove labour-intensive tasks through automation, increase employee productivity and efficiency, and reduce the margin for human error, tech-savvy professionals have a wealth of additional time to complete value-add tasks that only a human can accomplish.

The app evangelist

Talk to any accountant about new accounting technology and ‘the cloud’ and ‘apps’ will likely come up. Beyond the aforementioned, well-known cloud accounting software solutions lies an ever-expanding ecosystem of digital applications. These provide accountants and businesses with a multitude of options to modernise how they operate and gain advanced business insights traditionally reserved for larger firms with big budgets.

The apps marketplace is huge and can seem confusing – after all, is a modern accountant meant to know the entire universe of apps?

‘It’s about listening to clients and evaluating the different apps against the functional requirements by doing a fit-gap analysis and then recommending the best solutions,’ says Barlow.

A point Heather Smith FCCA, ‘accounting apps hype girl’ and 100% digital practice owner/nomad, puts forward too: ‘A tech-savvy accountant uses technology efficiencies to benefit their business and their client’s business.’

For Smith this means being comfortable providing apps advisory – being able to recommend different business applications and an awareness of how they can be implemented and utilised to automate and improve productivity, workflow and surface information useful for data-informed decisions.

Though she notes that this does not mean an accountant must then have the technical know-how to implement the apps they recommend.

‘For example, they may recognise that a manual process can be replaced with automation, but may leave it to an expert to do the implementation,’ says Smith. ‘There is a broad spectrum of apps advisory, from awareness through to full-blown implementation. I would consider any awareness is reflective of a tech-savvy accountant.’

The skills requirement in the accountancy profession is currently highly fluid. While the fundamental principals of accounting will remain virtually unchanged, the ‘other’ skills, technology and interpersonal (communication, negotiation, presentation, stakeholder management), are going through a constant reimagining. While it may be sufficient to have an appreciation and an awareness of latest innovations, there are also new business situations welcoming forward-looking finance professionals that have adapted and enhanced their skills sets and have deeper knowledge in specialist areas.

There is no one-size fits all accountant in the modern world, rather a hybrid capable of learning and specialising to meet change and demand, and technology should be seen as an enabler, not a distraction or a replacement.

This article was first published in Student Accountant

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