Tech rev­o­lu­tion will free ac­coun­tants from their staid life

Sunday Times - - THE BACK PAGE -

FEW pro­fes­sions have a more staid im­age than ac­count­ing. Stereo­types range from “bor­ing” to “bean counter”, with lit­tle align­ment to per­sonal or busi­ness goals.

It may come as a sur­prise, then, that ac­coun­tants are prob­a­bly more pre­pared for the tech­nol­ogy rev­o­lu­tion than most pro­fes­sions — and pre­cisely be­cause they are aligned with their clients’ needs.

A sur­vey con­ducted by World Wide Worx for Xero, the UK­head­quar­tered small-busi­ness ac­count­ing soft­ware com­pany started in New Zealand, re­veals that the vast ma­jor­ity of South African ac­coun­tants are gear­ing up for the fu­ture.

Of 200 ac­count­ing firms sur­veyed for the South Africa State of Ac­counts study, 88% agreed that in-depth knowl­edge of tech­nol­ogy and au­to­ma­tion would be cru­cial to their suc­cess in the next three years. That was a re­mark­ably sim­i­lar fig­ure to the 87% of small and medium en­ter­prises that pre­ferred to work with ac­coun­tants who un­der­stood tech­nol­ogy.

The re­la­tion­ship may not re­main so cosy. Of 400 South African SME de­ci­sion-mak­ers in­ter­viewed, al­most a third be­lieved that tech­nol­ogy could au­to­mate ac­count­ing so much within 10 years that they may not need ac­coun­tants. Al­ready, data en­try and bank-state­ment pro­cess­ing is done by soft­ware.

That doesn’t mean the pro­fes­sion will be re­dun­dant. The most telling find­ing was that a quar­ter of SMEs reg­u­larly ask their ac­coun­tants for non-ac­count­ing ad­vice. In other words, many ac­coun­tants are evolv­ing into busi­ness con­sul­tants, as the tech­nol­ogy frees up the time they would have spent on “bean-count­ing”.

And this is about to ac­cel­er­ate. When choos­ing ac­coun­tants, say no less than 62% of the SMEs, the po­ten­tial for “added value” re­ceives the high­est pos­si­ble im­por­tance rat­ing. More­over, 65% of SME own­ers al­ready re­gard their ac­coun­tants as their most trusted ad­vis­ers.

Busi­ness ad­vice is core to these ex­pec­ta­tions, but so is the abil­ity to forecast — rated as very im­por­tant by more than half of re­spon­dents.

Of course, train­ing will be crit­i­cal: 80% of ac­coun­tants ac­knowl­edge they’ll need some in the next five years to adapt.

There is a mas­sive pos­i­tive spin-off for ac­coun­tants us­ing tech­nol­ogy to its full po­ten­tial: speed of re­sponse. Seven out of 10 SME own­ers cite this as a de­cid­ing fac­tor when find­ing pro­fes­sion­als.

Then there is the ultimate ben­e­fit: break­ing away from the all-work-and-no-play im­age of ac­coun­tants. As the re­port says: “In 2017, an in­dus­try pro­fes­sional no longer has to work a pun­ish­ing eight-to-five sched­ule in a drab, grey of­fice: they can work re­motely from home, on pub­lic trans­port, or the beach — within busi­ness hours of their own choos­ing.”

Con­trary to the stereo­type, ac­coun­tants do have a life. And more than two-thirds of those re­spond­ing to the sur­vey said that in­creased flex­i­bil­ity in hours would have ben­e­fits out­side the of­fice, as in rais­ing chil­dren.

Thanks to soft­ware au­to­ma­tion do­ing mun­dane tasks, the re­port con­cludes, ser­vices can be pro­vided out­side a con­ven­tional time frame. It also cre­ates a new cat­e­gory for this pro­fes­sion: the “on-de­mand ac­coun­tant”.

The next big shift in ac­count­ing tech­nol­ogy will prob­a­bly be around ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, which sounds even more threat­en­ing. But ac­coun­tants may just be ready for it.

Gold­stuck is the founder of World Wide Worx and ed­i­tor-inchief of Fol­low him on Twit­ter @art2gee

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