The future’s bright for accountants – but only if they bin their old textbooks

The new report from The Association of Chartered Certified Accountant (ACCA) – ‘Professional Accountants: The Future’ – is illuminating. Illuminating because it doesn’t just contain the opinions of accountants. If it did, it couldn’t possibly cover the insight needed to inform the profession on how it needs to change and adapt. The report focuses instead on the thoughts of 2,000 business leaders who were asked to consider what they would need from their accountants in the future. And that’s much more valuable. As Helen Brand OBE, ACCA’s chief executive, told us: “We designed the report to align with ACCA’s primary aim of being number one in developing professional accountants that the world needs.”

So what will the world need from its accountants in the foreseeable future? And how is that perception changing?

Well, the headline message is that accountants now need a far wider skillset. And topping the list of essential new skills is creativity, which is closely followed by flexibility. The new business environment has more grey areas than ever before, and the days of black-and-white financial planning and easily defined roles for accountants are gone. Businesses now need their ‘accountants’ to be so much more than numbers people who mechanically complete technical tasks. Instead, they want fleet-of-foot advisors who can not only add value but who can also influence the narrative of an organisation.

“The information that businesses need today is going way beyond financial,” says Helen. “The accountancy profession must now give organisations a new way of expressing the value that they create – but this is not just financial value – it is value in terms of sustainability, people, the environment, society and so on. These benefits must be communicated effectively and clearly to stakeholders, so if accountants are to remain relevant, they must find new ways of reporting financial and non-financial value.”

The report also clearly demonstrates that fluency with digital technology is not just a bonus skill that it might be nice for young accountants to have, but an integral part of business. This advice is not just for millennials but for the whole profession; young and old. “People used to think that digitisation was a fad but that has since been proven not to be the case,” says Faye Chua, head of Business Insights at ACCA. “The ultra-connected digital world was the ‘new normal’ two years ago. Now it’s just normal. The older generation cannot afford to ignore it and simply leave it to the youth. If you’re going to be an adviser, you’ve got to embrace digital technology wholeheartedly.”

Accountants also need to face up to the prospect of rapidly improving artificial intelligence. A machine that can learn to do certain accountancy tasks is no longer just a sci-fi plot, but a reality. Faye Chua says: “We are now creating intelligent machines that can learn – look at Tesla’s driverless cars for example. The report does not suggest that such technology will simply replace the accountancy profession. But it does point to the fact that accountants’ EQ, creative data interpretation and relationship skills will become so much more important because those are talents that machines can’t easily replicate.”

Conceivably, ACCA’s report suggests that if accountants stick only to traditional finances, then they could morph into cranky old maths teachers who won’t lecture on anything but fractions and quadratic equations – who will soon be redundant and replaced by a combination of young multiskilled upstarts and computer programmes. Instead of putrefying, accountants must now look outwards, embrace change and futureproof themselves. They will achieve this by sharpening their interpersonal skills and by widening their remit from finances alone to embracing all aspects of business ‘value’.

However, the report also suggests that the market continues to place value on two very traditional aspects of accountancy – technical skills and ethical behaviour. Helen says: “Another loud message to emerge from this report is that technical ability and the ethical dimension of the profession remain at its heart. Appropriate technical skills are still important, and doing the right thing in the right way remains a priority for all business leaders. And the good news is that the trust they have in professional accountants to practise ethically is just as strong as ever. That’s great because it differentiates professional accountants and reinforces the idea that accountancy is not just a body of knowledge but more a way of life.”

But that’s not an excuse to bury your head in the sand and carry on without responding to new market demands. Quite the opposite. “We’re now living with permanent ambiguity and volatility, and that requires quite a subtle new skillset,” says Helen. “The answer isn’t on page 42 of the textbook. How we train and develop our people to deal with that uncertainty is critical.”

From the report, ACCA has identified the seven key skills or ‘quotients’ that are critical to help accountants achieve future success in today’s changing market conditions:

  • Technical and ethical competencies (TEQ): The skills and abilities, often based on a professional qualification, to perform activities consistently to a defined standard.
  • Intelligence (IQ): The ability to acquire and use knowledge – thinking, reasoning and solving problems.
  • Creativity (CQ): The ability to use and apply existing knowledge in a new situation, to make connections, explore potential outcomes, and generate new ideas.
  • Digital (DQ): The awareness and application of existing and emerging digital technologies, capabilities, practices, strategies and culture.
  • Emotional (EQ): The ability to identify your own emotions and those of others, harness and apply them to tasks, and regulate and manage them.
  • Vision (VQ): The ability to anticipate future trends accurately by extrapolating existing trends and facts, and filling the gaps by thinking innovatively.
  • Experience (XQ): The ability and skills to understand customer expectations, meet desired outcomes and create value.

There are two other topics within the ACCA report that we find fascinating. The first concerns EQ: “People often get the idea of EQ wrong because it’s actually about understanding your own emotions as well as other people’s,” says Helen. “Do you understand how your own emotions are working and impacting on a business decision? Your understanding of yourself is just as important as your understanding of others.”

The second identifies a new business trend: “We saw quite clearly that CFOs are getting closer and closer to the CEOs,” says Helen. “The CEO is relying more and more on the CFO. That means the CFO is becoming even more of a key figure – the guardian of the organisation with the ear of the CEO.”

Staying relevant is a big worry for many accountants. ACCA’s market-driven report is a big help in the profession’s quest to stay relevant and at the heart of the game. Absorbing it is the equivalent of an intense gym workout: it may hurt a little at the time but you’ll be healthier for it. The conclusion is that accountants can’t afford to sit in ivory towers and expect everything to remain the same.

It’s time to get to the gym…

As a first step, go to where you can test yourself against the ‘magnificent seven’ quotients.

Helen Brandfaye-chua

Helen Brand OBE is CEO at ACCA and Faye Chua is head of Business Insights