FUTURE OF THE PROFESSION - CHANGING EMPLOYER’S EXPECTATIONS

Alan Nelson and Rachel Bruce, Managing Director and Publisher at accountingcpd.net respectively, recently caught up with Lisa Weaver, Associate Professor Warwick Business School and accountingcpd.net author. They were discussing the future of the profession and Lisa was asked to share her thoughts on how employers’ expectations were changing in accounting.

Lisa:

Well I think [the changing expectations] are really interesting. I think it does depend on the job that you're doing. Employers and audit firms have different expectations compared to businesses, for example. But I do see a trend happening. Employers, and also clients if you're in a client facing role, will expect accountants to be much more tech savvy and a lot more capable of dealing with information.

I saw a nice phrase the other day when I was reading about this. The phrase, which I think is going to be applied more and more to accountants, describes their role as ‘information engineers’. This really made me stop and think. I thought, well surely since people first started accounting years ago, centuries ago, we have always been providing information. We've been the providers of information and also the users of information, the analysts. But it seems to me that this is becoming more and more viewed as part of our role. 

I certainly think that employers’ clients will expect accountants to not just provide information but to also do something really useful with it. And that makes me think that, in the future, accountants will be seen more as value creators, value providers, rather than the person who checks compliance and puts a load of numbers together. 

Accountants really need to be able to move into the sphere of using the information that they create to help strategy, to move across the silos within the organization.

Alan:

Perhaps it's at times of significant change that we return to those fundamental truths because, as you said, accountants have always been providers of value in that way. They've always been able to take information and turn it into something that you can rely on to make good decisions from. For me, what a good accountant has always done, is sit between the information and the manager and say I can help you interpret that. This could be a fantastic opportunity to continue to provide that bridging role. Accountants will lose that opportunity if they lose touch with the technical side of things, if they aren’t able to keep up with using new tools.

Rachel:

I agree, just a couple of years ago, emerging technologies were described as quite scary and threatening. But more recently,  accountants are seeing technology as more of an opportunity in terms of their role and that the use of technology means that they can do things more efficiently and better tools leads to making better decisions and disseminate information more effectively throughout the business, adding more value.

Lisa:

I think what accountants need to think about is two key things. 

Firstly, whether or not they feel comfortable with the technology itself. I certainly think accountants will need to become more tech savvy. I don't think accountants need to be the programmers or the designers of the I.T. But they certainly need to be extremely proficient in how to use the data. 

Secondly, I think it's important that accountants begin to think about the softer skills that they need to use when they analyse data. For example, anticipating what the end user needs, thinking about what they consider to be important. Accountants need to be skilled in using this vast amount of data, selecting what's most important, prioritizing it for the user as well as telling the story. 

There is a lot of talk at the moment about accountants needing to develop creative skills in storytelling because we are going to become the communicators of this vast amount of information. There are an awful lot of skills that are perhaps not so much to do with technology but more to do with creativity. I think that is very exciting for accountants.

Alan:

Absolutely. I think it can be some of those skills that differentiates a qualified accountant from an extremely clever data scientist. Accountants need to understand how to manipulate data and use it effectively with the emerging software available. The reason why you have an accountant is because they provide that bridge of converting data into value. If they don't do that, they lose their role in the process. So I think it is a massive opportunity as well as being a threat.

All of this makes me think of the phrase that's been around for longer than we've been talking about the rapid pace of change in technology, and that’s the description of the role of an accountant as a ‘trusted business advisor’.

How do you think that squares with people's perception of accountants? If we know what we need to do in order to provide value, does the rest of the world get that that's what we might be able to offer? Do they think we're capable of offering that at the moment?

Lisa:

I think that's becoming the perception. I think we've come a long way in the past few years from the idea of the bean counter and the man in the grey pinstriped suit. I don't think that is what people think of accountants anymore. 

I do think that people now see accountants as ‘value providers’. I think in some organizations there are even roles at board level like the Chief Value Creator and it seems to me that accountants or finance professionals are probably the best placed people to fill that role.

As more roles are created of that nature and when the value creation proposition becomes more important as companies stop doing things like integrated reporting and they see accountants as being the driver of that, I think perceptions will change even more so. I think positioning accountancy as this value creator is the most important thing and I think that will force expectations to change.