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Accountants will need to pick up some new skills as automation, machine learning, and eventually, blockchain, begin to seep into their everyday work, some of the profession’s leading innovators told Bloomberg Tax.
Who better to assess risks, internal controls and the potential impact on financial information related to the emerging technology than accountants, said Andrea Tinianow, a strategy consultant with Global Kompass, who helped launch a blockchain initiative for the state of Delaware.
“This is a whole new area for them,” Tinianow told Bloomberg Tax.
But with opportunity comes challenges as a skills gap emerges in the profession.
Both public companies and accounting firms increasingly are looking for new hires with digital and analytical skills that go beyond technical accounting experience—skills that many mid-career accountants and recent college graduates may lack.
“There is so much more that accountants can do if they learn some additional skills,” said Raef Lawson vice president of research and policy for the Institute of Management Accountants.
“Don’t think you’re going to go to work and process accounts payables, receivables or prepare financial reports for the rest of your life. Because that’s not going to happen—that’s going to be all automated,” Lawson told Bloomberg Tax.
Many accounting professional organizations have identified skills and competencies that accountants might refer to. Both the IMA, the American Institute of CPAs, the Business Learning Institute, and others are working to help re-position accountants to meet the evolving needs of their clients and employers, and close that skills gap.
Here is a look at a few steps accountants, whether in corporate or public accounting, can take to prepare for the profession’s technology transformation:
“You have to look further ahead,” said Tom Hood, chief executive officer of the Maryland Association of CPAs Inc. and the Business Learning Institute. Accountants will need to anticipate customers’ needs, not react to them.
Accountants should look to trends in technology, demographics, and regulations and find opportunities to help themselves, their clients or their organization, Hood said.
“The world is changing so fast that if CPA firms don’t have skill at helping their clients adopt to that changing world, they are going to end up getting left behind,” said David Knoch, president of 1st Global, a research and consulting partner for CPA firms based in Dallas, which is working to help CPA’s add wealth management services to their practices.
To provide better technology advice, Knoch suggested that accountants start by learning more about what their own firm or company is doing on that front and why. Talk to the technology staff, ask what they are working on or have a conversation with the IT vendor, he said.
“Every finance person will be required to do some data analytics,” said Ash Noah, vice president of chartered global management accountants external relations for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “We’re not talking about making them data scientists.”
Accountants must understand how data within their organization is created and the flow of that information, Noah said.
Advanced data analytics goes beyond working with a single database, combining data from different sources—both from within the organization and external information, Noah said.
Blending different pools of data—weather, demographics, and location data for customers for example—can provide useful insights that could help boost revenue, reduce costs and serve customers better, Noah said.
Machine learning tools will allow accountants to provide more accurate forecasting and provide better insights, Noah said.
“We don’t need to learn how to write the algorithm. We need to understand the art of the possible,” Noah said.
Accountants should familiarize themselves to programming tools like SQL and Python. They should understand the possible uses of those tools and what questions they might ask of data scientists who end up working alongside accountants, the IMA’s Lawson said.
But don’t worry Excel lovers, the workhorse spreadsheet program is not going away, Lawson said.
Other tools accountants should learn more about include Qlick and Power Bi—advanced visualization tools that allow accountants to build live-updating data dashboards, Noah said.
Corporate leaders are looking for insights and accountants need to provide context around the numbers that accountants compile, Hood said.
“We are good at compiling the data. We’re good at auditing the data. We’re good at sticking it in a spreadsheet and then giving it to someone. But we often don’t turn it into the story,” Hood said. “What’s it mean, how did we get here, where are we going?”
Interpreting that data will involve graphics, pictures, trend lines, but most importantly analysis, Hood said.
Collaboration will be a key skill in an increasingly interconnected world, Knoch said. “There is nothing we can really do anymore on our own,” he said.
Take the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Wayfair and sales tax collections, for example. Plenty of CPAs are advising clients on how to comply with the ruling, even if they don’t know much about state and local tax compliance, Hood said.
Hood’s advice: Connect with coworkers or colleagues at other local accounting firms to help solve the client’s problem. Social media networks like Facebook or LinkedIn offer a virtual option to connect with those who can help, he said.
Accountants also need to bridge silos within their own companies – engage with the marketing team, the sales staff, or the IT department in order to find opportunities to work together and provide more value to the organization, Noah said.
Accountants, whether running a firm or working for a company, will need to think intentionally about becoming leaders in their organizations and how to develop new leaders, Knoch said.
“For the profession to be as amazing as we think it can, it’s going to need strong leaders,” Knoch said. “Far too many firms are just running the business.”
Don’t leave behind the ethics and values of the profession, Lawson said. Organizations will look to accountants to provide ethical leadership as questions arise around the use of data.
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