Accountants may appear to be on the endangered species list in this era of rapidly-increasing automation, but Adam Davy, head of advisory for BDO New Zealand, says accountants just need to think differently and stay relevant if they want to assure demand for their services in the future.
"As Star Trek's Mr Spock might say... 'It's accounting Jim, but not as we know it'," Davy says.
Although there's no doubt automation has had huge benefits for the accounting industry in eliminating the need for tedious "bean counting", Davy says it's not about saving time and doing less. "Rather, it's about allowing people to create more value. The key challenge for us is to navigate this explosion in accounting and business-related technology and best advise our clients on it. In a sense this is a new skill-set, particularly for those lacking any IT background."
Experience and understanding of internal finance roles and how well solutions can enhance functions is a large chunk of what's required, he says. "Efficient and quality compliance will never totally go away and is still an important fundamental offering. But the point is, we can't just hire good bean counters. Our advisers also need the attitude and potential to be client-facing advisers who will succeed in an ever-changing environment."
Davy says the challenges facing businesses lately have been nothing short of dramatic. The explosive growth in technological enhancements has made for difficult decisions around investment. And although BDO's clients are seeing great opportunities abroad, the challenge is in being able to take advantage of them.
"The costs of operating overseas and the required structures and resources are often underestimated by business owners."
Rapid growth is another challenge, with few strategic business plans these days involving slowly grinding away for decades to build a loyal customer base, says Davy.
"Dynamism is a fundamental component of many of our successful clients, and the required strategy can dictate short timeframes for growth and market penetration. This means we really need compliance and reporting to run like clockwork, with the data available at our fingertips. Neither we nor our clients can afford to waste time on historical results and we need to be available when our clients really need us for the next step."
Davy says successful organisations and happy staff are no coincidence, with it long being the case that companies who attract the right talent and get the right fit continually outperform those who don't.
"The change recently is how we work to align the current business environment, technology and new generations entering the workforce together. This is a fundamentally important investment for every organisation, and our clients value good advice around what works and what to do when it doesn't."
To address these client challenges, accountants must embrace cloud-based accounting software, says Davy. "But harnessing the cloud for efficient accounting compliance is not enough. The real benefit is in utilising apps and add-ons to provide privately-owned businesses with a broader, more integrated solution that is the envy of larger corporates. Continual investment in tools and resources that facilitate quality, advisory-led engagements with our clients is key."
Davy notes that as the demands of the profession accelerate, graduates may have less time and opportunity to master the basics. However, those coming lately into the accounting and advisory sector need a different set of skills to those of the traditional accountant, and "thankfully a lot of these can be learned and trained in the right environment".
When hiring graduates, BDO looks to see what else they've have done in their lives and what relevant skills they have attained outside of accounting and tax. "And they need to have a very positive attitude to change. Those with a broad range of awareness, and excitement about future potential, have a fantastically rewarding opportunity ahead of them."
However, the opportunities won't be for just the young. Davy says that as long as older accountants are bold enough to adapt, they will be among those best placed to add value to clients.
"Their experience helps them empathise with, and make judgment calls on, a broad range of business situations. I'm an older accountant myself, and I love the opportunities and challenges of combining my broad and deep experience with the latest technology to give maximum value to the client."
Davy doesn't ultimately envisage a future where accountants will be replaced by robots. "Instead, accountants will increasingly be required to bring their humanity to bear on their work," he says.
"Futurists talk of change and evolution and the inevitable move to robotics in a logical, predictable manner. They forget one thing - emotion. Find an accountant with empathy and passion, apply that to what the numbers actually mean to you, and there may be hope yet."