Speaking at Accountex, Jennifer Warawa was quick to remind accountants that the pace of change in the industry will only increase from now on. That’s bad news for those who have already found the pace too fast – but exciting for anyone who is keen to take advantage of the transformation being wrought by technology in particular. Sage’s executive vice president of partners, accountants and alliances was introducing the company’s Practice of Now 2019 report, a survey of UK accountants. Among the findings was the figure of 86% of accountants who believe that the industry needs to pick up the pace of technology adoption to remain internationally competitive. She spoke to Accountancy Age about what this means for firms in the UK.
How many accountants were surveyed for the Practice of Now report?
Three thousand – it’s a good sample size, of different sized practices.
What kinds of things did you learn?
There are some trends which we haven’t heard about before so much, such as diversity and culture, which didn’t come up previously. MTD has pushed accountants forwards a bit, and opened their minds. They are looking past automation – which we have been talking about for many years – towards other trends which are going to affect their business.
Are training programmes adequately preparing people for the changed profession?
Training programmes are not ready – they are only ready for old school accounting, the bean-counting tasks. Accountants do need that, but they also need to be able to have open-ended conversations with their clients. There was an accountant in a roundtable discussion this morning who said that she doesn’t want to change, she does compliance and her clients are happy with that. I feel like that is risky, you do need to diversify your practice.
What are the most important skills for accountants to have now?
One of the most critical skills that I see as a skill of the future is communication. It is top of the list. It is not a one-way process – how do you understand your client’s business, by asking questions and having a conversation. A lot of businesses don’t even know about all the services which their accountant provides. The accountants we surveyed think that technology literacy is the most important skill, but it isn’t just important to know about the big players, it is about understanding all the apps which interact with those. One way to do that is to focus on a speciality, such as retail, fintech, etc, and get to know that really well. In a market like Australia, they live in the cloud, but you still get accountants who say they don’t know if the cloud is safe.
Your report found that 88% of UK accountants said they want to recruit people from a non-traditional background. What kind of experience would that be?
“It is about what could add value for your customers.”
We had a partner in South Africa who decided he was going to recruit someone who understands technology, but not necessarily accounting. It is about what could add value for your customers. You might choose someone who is a brilliant communicator, or someone who will understand what your clients want in five years’ time.
Meanwhile, 28% of those surveyed said they are actively seeking to diversify their workforce. What is the best way to go about this?
It depends what you mean by diversity. A lot of accounting firms think it means gender, but that is only one type of diversity. Others include background, skillset, and age. I always have interns report directly to me, as they can really challenge our perspective. Someone who doesn’t know the industry has a refreshingly different perspective. In a lot of cases, firms who say they are doing something about diversity are in reality only thinking about doing something about it. People tend to employ someone based on whether it would be a ‘good cultural fit’, thinking that they will get on and have fun at work, but that isn’t really what you need. You need someone who will bring a different perspective and challenge you.
Change may be happening at a faster pace than ever, but how do you ensure staff can keep up with it, and not experience a kind of change fatigue from taking too much on?
Everybody sees the value in their own profession, but we are bad at seeing the value in others. Accountants know they need to change, but they are reluctant to employ a change management consultant. They see it as a fluffy nice-to-have. When you ask people ‘would you cut your own hair?’ they say no, but they want to do their own change management. Every industry could benefit from it.
What things should an accountant practice do right now to prepare for the future?
They should spend some time creating a five-year business plan, even if everything changes. Right now, they often try to solve problems using technology, but they haven’t thought about the business they want to have in five years’ time. It makes you think about what is going on in the industry.