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The big tech opportunity awaiting the sector

The Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA) recently asked a cross-section of its members about their perceptions of the current and future role of the accountant. What it revealed has emphasised the golden tech opportunity, to be seized through training and client services, fuelled by the pandemic, climate change and the post-Brexit shake-up, says John Edwards, CEO of the Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA).  

The objective of the survey was to identify the main challenges facing the profession including those presented by new technologies and to understand how the industry can help provide the skills and training needed to address these challenges. The members questioned were all aged 41 and under, with 32% based in the UK, and 68% internationally.

COVID drives digital demand 

Perhaps of little surprise was the fact that as the survey took place during COVID, one of the biggest challenges identified was that of remote working and the impact that it had on client communication. Over one third of respondents also indicated that they had faced associated challenges with needing more proactive client communication, securing new business and deploying new technology in particular team/client collaboration software (63%) and team management software (59%). 

The impact of technology was also evident in what members saw as the key challenges facing them in the future, the most significant being maintaining relevancy with the growth in automation of accounting tasks by artificial intelligence (AI) and the increased use of cloud-based accounting tools by clients. Knowledge about some new technologies revealed a skills gap, with 75% of respondents saying that they had at best ‘some knowledge’ of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and 55% indicating a low level of knowledge of artificial intelligence. When asked about the effectiveness of their accountancy training and what areas they would like to see incorporated into the syllabus, 47% said that including technology – notably cloud software, data analytics, artificial intelligence, and practical business skills – would have better prepared them for the challenges they have faced as accountants. 

The need for value-added and specialist services 

Respondents felt that offering broader strategic services in addition to technical accountancy skills was the most needed action to address the challenges facing accountants (70.4%) followed by 58.6% seeing developing specialist skills in areas such as R&D, fraud prevention, and capital allowances as important. This focus on training in non-traditional accounting skills was picked up strongly, with more than 73% of responses indicating that the sector could provide support in this area to help equip accountants in their future careers. 

The findings did not differ when in another later survey members were asked which challenges they had faced whilst working as an accountant during the pandemic: 23.5% indicated experiencing difficulties in securing new business, while just over a quarter (25.3%) of respondents had struggled to adopt new technology to support remote working. 31.2% indicated they had experienced challenges in providing more frequent support, advice and reassurance to clients, and 19.9% in addressing changes in legislation.

Game-changing opportunities 

Encouragingly, over 65% respondents said they felt confident in their knowledge, flexibility, and ability to keep up with technology and other challenges. Yet what’s important is to ensure all respondents – and indeed, all accounting professionals – have the same level of confidence, something that can be addressed by the sector through further training opportunities.

New technology, along with unprecedented times, is transforming the way people work, as well as influencing client expectations. This shift to digital transformation has been accelerated by COVID, climate change is placing sustainability at the top of every business’ agenda, and Brexit has highlighted an appetite for education in the context of the global business landscape. In addition, recent systemic changes from the likes of HMRC, including the previous and pending phases of Making Tax Digital, serve to ensure the adoption of appropriate technology, making familiarity with digitalisation an essential skill for the modern accountant. 

The pandemic and COP26 have shown that environmental sustainability issues are fundamental to an organisation’s survival, as they become increasingly accountable not just for their finances but for the sustainability of their operations. Environmental, social, and governance issues are becoming key concerns – and a major attraction – for global investors, as their sights are fixed on sustainability and climate change, offering a widespread growth opportunity for auditing.  

Blockchain technology is also making progressive leaps and bounds in the sector through driving efficiencies by streamlining the tracking of digital assets, with one major accounting firm declaring it was well placed to “drive real productivity”. 

What’s more, AI is set to change the face of accounting operations, delivering efficiencies, reducing errors, and optimising workflows, while assisting professionals with real-time business decision making, based on insights driven from accounting data. Demand for AI-based accounting software has actually increased thanks to the sharp rise in digital payments, fuelled by the pandemic. Fears that technology will replace the human element simply aren’t true, as AI is poised to assist human decision-making, rather than replace it entirely.

The future

Amidst all the uncertainty of the past two years, one thing has become abundantly clear: the role of the traditional accountant is changing, and those firms that don’t embrace these rich opportunities to reap significant benefits will undoubtedly get left behind.

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