The Changing Skill Set in Accountancy

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[Blog by Chris Tredwell]

There is a lot of talk within this community and wider afield of the changing skillset for tomorrows CFO. In a previous article, we discussed the drivers of change in the world of accounting. In summary, we discovered that the biggest drivers have been in technological developments (Cloud, Robotic Process Automation, Machine Learning, Cybersecurity) and in regulatory governance (i.e. MTD). 

In this article we are going to delve into the effects that these changes are having on the workforce, both already observed and the possible issues that this will raise in the future, as well as a deeper look into the skills that will become key for the workforce of the future to develop to continue our path of progression. 

Foundation and Empire

Isaac Asimov’s well-loved Foundation Series delved into a universe of a Galactic Empire that through millennia of technological and scientific developments had been able to conquer all of space. The problem for the empire, however, was that the knowledge of the basic principles that underlined these extraordinary advancements had long been forgotten; no longer taught due to the need to develop the skill sets of the workforce at the highest level. 

This naturally led to huge problems when they eventually began to break, ultimately bringing about the Empire’s demise, thus creating civil unrest across the Galaxies. 

So what do faltering galactic empires have to do with accounting professionals? 

In Aqilla’s Industry Research Report, The Finance Professional for Tomorrow, Jeanette Barrowcliffe of Meridian Business Support found that new technology has made teams more efficient to get to the end of the task, but ultimately no one on the team understood how they got there, thus creating problems when queries arose from other areas of the business. 

Saad Arshad of Jacobs Douwe Egberts expands on this: “The skills set has changed. In the past, finance individuals were trained in the educational sector. There was more focus on the technical side but now, if you look at the accounting qualifications, they have been completely transformed. Exams marking is now vetted based on technical skills, organisational skills, business skills and leadership skills.”

A Change in Requirements

These changing demands are being driven by the industry, as the need for more rounded individuals becomes salient. ACCA Global’s 2016 report “Drivers of change and future skills” highlighted that “by 2020, all professional accountants will need to develop and balance the necessary professional quotients to fit their role and stage of career.” The analysis highlighted 7 quotients for the development of accounting professionals, to ensure future individual and thus collective success. 

The facilitation of creativity within the workplace is a well-discussed topic amongst academics, with the growing need for commercial awareness directly benefiting from individual and organisational creative development. The drivers of change discussed in our previous blog post, such as globalisation, have continually pushed for innovation in or for organisations to not only compete but also survive.

This, in turn, is affecting organisational structures, with the historically bureaucratic nature of large organisations in particular found to inhibit creativity. Strategic initiatives are changing within the finance function, especially as a consequence of AI development allowing for stronger processing capabilities that are becoming increasingly adept at the manual, time-consuming tasks. These tasks were once the responsibility of employees, whose time is now freed up for other tasks, which explains the changes to the teaching of accounting professional qualifications.

Skills for now, Skills for the Future

With the workforce’s focus moving towards developing skills outside of repetitive tasks, let’s have a look at some of the skills that are being taught and fostered for now and for the future.

Data Analysis and Presentation

With Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) becoming ever more present in our working lives, our ability to understand, manipulate and present the findings from new data discoveries. Big Data (data sets that have been traditionally too large to process and analyse), is now at the centre of data analysis, especially for large organisations that have collated masses of data for decades and are now finding ways to manipulate these data sets to achieve new insights.

These are the technical skills that are now at the forefront of teaching, enabling the workforce to understand the basic concepts that now underline data analysis, whilst additionally having space to breath new ideas from a place of understanding what is possible, what is not, and what may soon be possible. 

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence and the ability to empathise is becoming increasingly valued amongst prospective leaders for the future. The concept gathered pace in the 1990s as Daniel Goleman developed the idea of the Emotional Quotient (EQ), which measures a different kind of intelligence from that previously highlighted by IQ tests. 

IQ and EQ have not been found to be correlated, with some people possessing high levels of one and low of the other, in addition to some who have high or low levels of both. EQ, according to Goleman, includes:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Regulation 
  • Motivation 
  • Empathy
  • People Skills

The growth of importance in these skills is also heightened by the fact that these elements of the workplace are under far less threat from AI than easily automated tasks. 

Commercial Awareness

Another key focus for organisations has been the growth in commercial awareness spread amongst the workforce. Historically, the higher up in the company you were, the more commercially astute you would need to be, to inform strategic decisions. 

This mindset has since trickled down more and more into the tactical level of management, with organisations taking a longer-term view of growing leaders for the future. Therefore, by enabling their staff to be best-prepared for making the right decisions in each situation with the commercial viability and sensibility weighed-up appropriately, their organisation, in turn, becomes more likely to not survive, but to profit. 

Building Agile Individuals

It could be argued that these changes to the skills set are less technically focused. Instead, there has been a conscious decision to nurture more rounded employees that are better prepared to cope with the ever-changing world of work. The technical skills that are taught are done so with a focus on the changes that have been made already, as we move towards the use of big data, AI and RPA, automation and cloud technologies. 

Building for the future will always be a somewhat ambiguous task, with uncertainty a certainty, so the approach of spreading the skills sets thinly across a range of organisational demands feels appropriate. Only time will tell whether this approach will be successful.

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