It’s a brave man who will predict the future, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency where everybody was expecting a pandemic, but it was the scale of the response that nobody foresaw, writes Professor Rashied Small, Executive: Centre of Future Excellence (CoFE), South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA). But while one should resist making detailed predictions, it would be equally foolish not to recognise the currents that are going to shape our world and, more particularly, our profession of accounting.
It’s clear that organisations that are agile and responsive to change were more likely to have spotted the threat posed by COVID-19 early on, and thus gave themselves time to ready themselves for change even though they were not necessarily certain about the details of that change.
One of SAIPA’s main aims is to help its members identify the trends that will be shaping the profession, and to help them acquire the skills they need to navigate the uncertain waters of change. We have identified the following trends that look set to disrupt accountancy:
Impact of technology on the profession. The impact of technology on business and society is undeniable, but professionals have tended to feel that they are to a great extent protected from anything more significant than having to learn some new technologies. It’s becoming clearer by the day that this is largely illusory. Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning coupled with the immense processing power of the cloud (the Fourth Industrial Revolution) means that many of the services currently rendered by accountants can be done better, faster and cheaper by software.
At a more profound level, increasingly sophisticated automation means that accountants can no longer rely on producing information — financial statements, balance sheets and so on—but must become information users and knowledge producers. This is good news because accountants are highly skilled people with a lot to offer both the private and public sectors. — and now they can focus on adding genuine value.
This will require a substantial mindset shift for many professional accountants. It will also mean that they will need to invest sensibly in technology and, particularly, in their own technology skills. Only by being expert users of the increasingly sophisticated software that is available will they be able to carve out a niche for themselves.
The days of simply churning out “the numbers” are rapidly ending.
Changing client demands. The flipside of the technology revolution is that clients will be able to do more for themselves, and their demands for advice will become more sophisticated. In many senses, both the private and public sectors are becoming more complex and the environment in which they operate is more uncertain. Their reliance on advice rather than information is likely to grow. Professional accountants must be ready to move from being primarily numbers people to something more like financial strategy consultants or advisors. To make this jump, they will need to understand the value of the data that the systems have generated, and how to use it to advise clients.
In the end, I believe that professional accountants can essentially position themselves as virtual CFOs for smaller enterprises, providing them with the financial insight they need to survive.
Growing regulation. Financial services are already highly regulated but expect more regulation to be coming your way. Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies can be of great assistance in boosting compliance, and professional accountants need to understand how to use them to align themselves with the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
Virtualisation of the working relationship. As many have observed, COVID-19 has forced everybody onto virtual platforms to conduct both business and social life. As with the Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies that are transforming their profession, accountants must embrace this change which is likely to be long-lasting. In due course a hybrid model will doubtless emerge, but virtual consultations have much to offer: they save an enormous amount of time and can be remarkably effective. A more virtual client relationship also means that a professional accountant can service a much greater number of clients over a theoretically unlimited geographical area.
Perfecting the technique of using a video call to build or deepen a relationship is going to be an essential skill for professionals as well as businesspeople.
Build resilience into your business model. The disruption caused by the current pandemic should serve as a wake-up call for smart professional accountants. Not only should they focus on risk identification and mitigation, they need to take steps to ensure that their practices are better able to adapt to the unexpected at speed. Above all, resilience will depend on the ability to cope with the materialisation of unforeseen risks.
Rather neatly, those who embrace the technology revolution will find themselves better positioned to change – or “pivot” as the new jargon has it – when the next unexpected challenge comes their way.
Are you future-proofed?