For nearly 20 consecutive years, finding qualified staff has been a top accounting firm issue according to the biennial American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Private Companies Practice Section Top Issues Survey.
As the skills needed to run accounting and finance teams diversifies further, the staffing questions are getting more complicated. Technology is playing an ever more important role in virtually all professions and accounting is no exception. This leaves hiring managers asking, “Do I hire professionals with strong technology knowledge or with accounting skills?”
Technology has alleviated some of the staffing challenges by increasing productivity and reducing the demand for full-time equivalents (FTE) accountants. On average, organizations reported that 20% of FTE capacity was provided by robots, and the return on investment was seen in less than 12 months, according to Deloitte’s Global Remote Process Automation Survey.
Artificial intelligence is another technology being implemented in accounting software and opening opportunities for analysis of complete data sets in place of samples. However, apprehension and lack of knowledge are slowing — but not stopping — the adoption of this technology. In 2019, Accenture did a global study on AI finding that lack of employee adoption was a key factor slowing the implementation of AI.
Despite the reluctance, AI tools reduce the transactional workload and augment the ability of highly sought-after accounting professionals. However, these technologies also have to be trained, thus begging my original question, “Do I hire technologists or accountants to meet the increasing demand?”
Accountants have specialized knowledge and skills that are not replaceable by technology. For the last eight months during the pandemic they have been on the front lines working on the economic recovery and business relief plans. And business owners — often nervous and bewildered by the unpredictability of 2020 — are looking to the sound advice of their trusted business advisor, their accountant.
Accounting teams that try to make a choice between traditional services and technology will lose. But those that look at the synergy between people, processes, and technology will excel and establish the profession of the future.
Operating in the cloud, leveraging digital dashboards, and fully adopting paperless tools has enabled the collaboration across teams and with clients, but the insight on what financial data to display comes from their experience. Accountants know which key performance indicators (KPIs) should be monitored, where the boundaries of a healthy versus at-risk lies within an organization, and how they can map a financial path forward with analysis and forecasting. Whether clients saw their businesses struggling or doing well, they wanted an experienced accountant to speak with and give them peace of mind. Thus, it was crucial for accounting firms to see that technology, properly used, brings people together and does not get in the way.
Facing the tech challenge
The World Economic Forum forecasted that many categories of jobs will be lost to machines by 2025, including data entry clerks, accountants, bookkeepers, payroll clerks, and auditors. However, this is from the perspective that accounting professionals are transactionally focused; and this is also assuming the profession is not evolving the services they offer and how they are employing technology to enhance the level of advisory services they can provide.
“In a world in which everything is changing, who are we to believe that we won’t have to change as well? The speed of change in our profession — and in our lives — is at an all-time high, and we need to think in a more complex way about change,” said Barry Melancon, CEO of AICPA, at CPA.com‘s 2017 Digital CPA Conference.
Clearly, accounting teams that try to make a choice between traditional services and technology will lose. But those that look at the synergy between people, processes, and technology will excel and establish the profession of the future.
Thus, the answer to my original question should not be one or the other, rather it should be about creating a balance of knowledge and skills to build a healthy, future ready organization. As the AICPA’s 2019 Trends report states:
The marketplace continues to demand different competencies and, while accounting graduates are still being hired, firms are seeking other skill sets to expand services. We are seeing that the gap in skills required in the profession, especially as it relates to technology needs, is being met with non-accounting graduates.
This supports the evolution taking place in the CPA licensure coming in January 2024. Firms are recognizing this shift in learning and developing their teams. Earlier this year, EY stated: “Organizations understand they require new competencies and profiles. But too often, they look to the tried-and-true instead of attempting creative new approaches to source and/or develop their employees.” In short, accounting and finance teams of the future need to have a blend of accounting knowledge, technology aptitude, and soft skills.
Hiring managers should also be looking for professionals that demonstrate that ability too: critically thinking, problem solving, communicating, and adapting. These so-called soft skills speak to an overall ability to learn and evolve as our environment continues to change at a faster and faster rate.
Solving the staffing challenge of today and tomorrow takes a fresh perspective and innovative approach. Start with assessing the current strengths of your team and identify what is lacking. An anticipatory approach tells us that technology will continue to advance, regulations will continue to change, and the demographics of our clients and staff are going to impact the demand for our products and work environment.
We need teams that collaborate and leverage the tools at their disposal to deliver the highest value. If you come across those rare individuals who have strong accounting and technology skills, scoop them up whether there is an open position or not! Build your team by focusing on the needs of tomorrow.