What the profession will look like over the coming decade

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In 2019, over 5,000 accountants from around the world came together to discuss the issues and trends shaping the profession. By the time the World Congress of Accountants (WCOA) in Sydney concluded, a picture had emerged of what accounting might look like in the next decade. We explore some of the major themes.

Architects of rebuilding trust 

The decline of public trust in business has been well documented in surveys and media globally, but portrayals of the human cost of financial corruption really bring it home. WCOA delegates heard first-hand from whistleblowers Michael Woodford (the ex-Olympus CEO who in 2011 exposed accounting fraud totalling more than 100 billion yen) and Wendy Addison (the ex-LeisureNet treasurer who in 2000 uncovered the embezzlement of millions of rand). 

They provided a timely reminder that professional accountants have a huge role to play in rebuilding public trust in business institutions. ‘Ethics sets us apart from every other profession,’ said Rachel Grimes, outgoing president of the International Federation of Accountants. ‘Trust is the most important asset a business can have – an intangible on the balance sheet that we know is priceless.’

Ethics consultant Clare Payne told attendees that accountants will have to go beyond compliance in order to earn public trust. Society’s expectations will keep changing, she said, often faster than standards are updated. Accountants will also need to weigh up the business advice they give by asking whether it’s moral. That means factoring in public attitudes to issues such as discrimination, human rights and income inequality, she added. 

It’s going to be emotional

‘To succeed in a fast-evolving digital age, professional accountants need a rounded set of skills that go beyond technical knowledge, and these skills include emotional intelligence,’ ACCA chief executive Helen Brand told the WCOA delegates as she unveiled new research into the topic.

While technology will be able to handle routine tasks in the future, only human beings will be able to identify and manage emotions in themselves and others, she added. ‘Many people have an intuitive sense of EQ [emotional quotient], often expressed as something to do with emotions and interacting effectively with people. But it is important also to critically reflect on the value embedded in emotions in today’s digital age. Effectively harnessing this value is vital for success.’

Delegates at WCOA were encouraged to proactively focus on their emotional intelligence by developing a range of competencies including a growth mindset, self-knowledge, perspective-taking, empathy and influence. A good place to start here is to assess your EQ level by using ACCA’s diagnostic tool, available at accaglobal.com/EQ.

Planetary mission 

Blessed with the technical skills to measure and validate data, accountants will be uniquely equipped to help achieve a more sustainable future for the planet. That was the message at WCOA from both the Prince of Wales and Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations secretary-general.

‘Peace and justice can only be established when everybody’s activities are accountable and transparent,’ said Ban. ‘Expand your collective efforts and take the lead in support of the UN Sustainability Development Goals and climate change action to make this world much, much more accountable. You are accountants. This word comes from “accountability”. So let’s work together to make this world better.’

In a video address, Prince Charles said accountants must assist in taking ‘drastic action’ on climate change. He said finance leaders have the ability and the responsibility to create sustainable and commercially viable business models. For more details, visit accountingforsustainability.org.

Younger generation will rise (and rise)

If WCOA is anything to go by, the next generation of accountants will be bold, ambitious and ready to reimagine the profession. Delegates enjoyed several presentations from young achievers who are already applying their accounting skills to support business and social causes.

‘As the new generation of accountants joins the ranks, we have different visions of what accounting can be,’ said Shelley Cable from PwC Australia. While still in her mid-20s, Cable spoke at the UN in Geneva in 2017 about the human rights of indigenous peoples. ‘I would love to see new and young accountants take on more leadership roles and believe in themselves that they can make a difference – because we absolutely can,’ she said. ‘There is nothing holding us back except our own imagination.’

Search hundreds of entry level roles from all over the world on ACCA Careers

Cable emphasised that young accountants are eager to collaborate with established leaders in the profession. She said: ‘We want to walk alongside you. We want to learn from your experience. And we want to combine it with our own energy and our own vision for the future.’

Adding more value than ever

The accounting profession can free itself from repetitive, transactional tasks and concentrate instead on adding greater value for clients and employers. That sentiment was repeatedly heard throughout the four days of WCOA, in sessions discussing artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, automated payments and blockchain.

‘When you’re looking after the financial wellbeing of a company, that’s a very big responsibility that accountants have, and many, many new innovations are happening all over the world,’ said Ayesha Khanna, co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based artificial intelligence solutions firm Addo AI. ‘I think it’s very exciting that there are more tools available for accountants.’

Grimes summed up the prevailing mood: ‘Through technological innovation and human ingenuity we can shed our most mundane tasks and expand our minds. We can also free up the world’s most precious non-renewable commodity: time. More time to provide high-value strategic advice. More time to advance sustainable prosperity. And more time to fulfil our public interest mission. Can we achieve it all? I know we can.’ 

Andy McLean, journalist based in Sydney

This article was first published in the January 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine

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