Accountants of the future
Thomson Reuters’ research into the profession raised some interesting talking points
The entire business world is going digital and accountancy is no different, driven by advances in technology and constant changes in regulation. The role of an accountant, once perceived as a ‘number cruncher’, has already evolved to encompass new skills, with even more of a focus on technology and relationship management.
To further explore the pace and impact of technological change over the next decade, in June of this year, Thomson Reuters commissioned research into the views of senior-level accountants in practice. Most of the 345 respondents work for an accountancy practice with fewer than ten staff and just over three quarters hold a senior level role within the firm.
In addition, Thomson Reuters also invited a range of experts to share their views on the findings for their ‘Accountant of Tomorrow’ report. The report explores accountants’ needs, wants and visions for the future.
Over 95% of accountants surveyed stated that their role was likely to change due to technology. Some 74% of these understand this change to be very likely; displaying an acceptance that technology will indeed continue to play a pivotal role in the future of accountancy.
Stephen Pell, founder of Pell Artists Accountants and one of the selected experts, sees technology as a positive for the profession. He said: “Technology is going to make life much more enjoyable and rewarding for an accountant, only bringing benefits to them as an adviser, and to their clients.”
However, many are concerned about the challenges that come with the digitisation of accounting over the next 10 years. A significant 25% of participants were concerned about the digitisation of the tax authority, in particular Making Tax Digital, the government’s recent digital tax system. Some 16% were extremely concerned about choosing the right software, while almost half (47%) were somewhat concerned with their software choices, giving the impression that digital tax is still a grey area for accountants.
Within the report, Thomson Reuters commented that with the significant progress in the next 10 years to move clients and practices online, cloud technology would be the most significant driver of change in the role of being an accountant. The report went on to comment that, in the same way as the anticipated requirements for Making Tax Digital, one of the consequences of cloud accounting would be the use of real-time data and more in-depth analytics.
Reflecting this, when asked which three specific advancements in technology would change their role in the next ten years, 67% of accountants cited cloud-based systems, while 52% highlighted the use of real-time data and more in-depth analytics. Also featured on the list of advancements were greater integration between the applications we use and artificial intelligence (AI), or machine learning.
But how will this digital influx directly impact services, and will digital free up accountants’ time – or will it impede day-to-day tasks?
When asked if participants’ time spent on standard tasks would be more, less or stay the same, most agreed that compliance exercises would see a very considerable reduction in the time required per task. Bookkeeping was viewed as the task that would most benefit accountants through digital technology. Personal tax and company tax were tasks considered to be eased the most following digital changes, whereas accounts preparation and VAT review and submission, albeit slightly less, were also deemed to be those that could be ‘digitalised’ in order to free up accountants’ time.
Automation is key
Since the introduction of digital processes, many have fought with the emergence of technology – and have been arguing that ‘robots will take our jobs’. Instead of feeling threatened by automation, it should be embraced as a means to spend time on more challenging (and chargeable) work. As Freddie Faure, co-founder at CooperFaure Accountants, argues: “Machines can only do so much, but they can’t think and they can’t interpret information. You would still need an accountant to do the critical assessments and understand how you can use that information to help the business in the future.”
When asked which critical accountancy tasks are most likely to become automated by technology in the next ten years, bookkeeping came out top, with 78% of those asked agreeing that it was the most likely. Other common choices for tasks most likely to become automated were data collection and tax return submission/filing. On the other hand, those tasks deemed least likely were client communication, business plan creation and auditing.
Each of these findings lead us to deduce that the introduction of digital software will not hinder an accountant’s workload, but will instead allow more time for advisory tasks, planning, business development and nurture of the client/accountant relationship.
While accountants predict that technology will indeed absorb more traditional accountancy tasks, those such as advisory services and business development will take more time – although accountants foresee advisory to be a critical knowledge area and one with the greatest potential for growth.
A future for change
Participants were asked how their role would evolve over the next ten years. Almost all agreed that they would need to integrate new skills and capabilities into their role, that their firm’s business model would be different in ten years’ time and that they themselves would become more efficient due to technology.
Just over 25% agreed that their firm would outsource more compliance work in 10 years’ time. Some see this as positive – tasks absorbed through technology will ease their workload, whereas others worry that fewer accountants will be needed as a result. One thing all agree on: the world of accountancy will change.
Jon Cooper, co-founder of CooperFaure Accountants, said: “We’re at the start of a pivotal ten years, with the advances in technology and artificial intelligence only likely to accelerate. It’s a game changer that could cut down the headcount for both accountants and businesses with in-house teams.”
So how can the ‘accountant of tomorrow’ prepare for the future? They must be open to changing core elements of their firm, such as technology, processes and their business model. Keeping clients compliant will continue to be at the heart of their offering, but much of the work to complete these tasks will be automated. More accurate and timely data will provide opportunities to offer more forward-focused services, and could cause accountants to adjust their business model.
Software partnerships will also be key in the digital age. As technology facilitates the digital world, Thomson Reuters is already working on the solutions needed to take accountants through the next 10 years, with the increasing use of real-time data and ever-changing regulatory requirements.
To download the ‘Accountant of Tomorrow’ report visit http://tax.thomsonreuters.co.uk/apm
- Thanks to Thomson Reuters for this article
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