This article was first published in the May 2020 China edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

The race is on. Digitalisation is reshaping the world and ‘the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines, but to compete with machines’, write Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy.

On the road to future job and value creation, the authors advocate a collaborative partnership between computers and humans. All accountancy and finance professionals are now some way through this transformative journey.

However, it will be a marathon not a sprint. Although digital technologies and trends are transforming the world so fast and fundamentally that it can feel dizzying, we are only just getting started. ‘The world we inhabit is already digital, and it will continue to become more digitalised,’ says Clive Webb, senior professional insights manager at ACCA. Data is growing exponentially in volume and value; business models are evolving and becoming more customer-centric; and organisations are investing significant resources in digital transformation. ‘Technology evolution will continue, but at a greater pace,’ he says.

Embrace the change

Adaptability, continuous learning and constant self-improvement will be vital if accountancy and finance professionals are to develop and maintain an optimal mix of digital, interpersonal and technical skills. ‘With our unique combination of accounting and ethical principles, business acumen and digital skills, the future of the profession is bright,’ says Webb. But there is no room for ambivalence to workplace changes that digital transformation brings. The profession must stay on top of evolving technologies and business models, and ensure that its skillsets evolve appropriately.

‘We need to develop and maintain our digital quotient,’ says Webb, who authored the recent ACCA report The digital accountant: digital skills in a transformed world. The digital quotient is one of seven professional quotients and competency areas where ACCA has identified behaviours and qualities that accountancy and finance professionals must develop if they are to remain relevant and meet future needs and demands. ACCA defines the digital quotient as ‘the awareness and application of existing and emerging technologies, capabilities, practices and strategies’.

Developing this quotient is complicated by a shifting and expanding digital technology landscape and the thorny questions it throws up for accountancy and finance professionals, the organisations they work with, and professional bodies, training providers and others. How much do accountancy and finance professionals need to know about technology? How does this vary across industries and sectors, technical specialisms, responsibilities, roles and career stages? What digital skills do members of the profession have and which do they need to develop?

These matters are considered in The digital accountant. It notes the need for accountancy and finance professionals to invest continually across a broad range of technology areas; explores their breadth and depth; and offers insights into how professionals can add value by combining their traditional accountancy and finance skills with their digital knowledge, business acumen and ethical lens to provide a powerful perspective. ‘It enables us to critically appraise the commercial potential of digital transformation,’ says Webb.

Make the journey

To do this successfully, all accountancy and finance professionals will need to make a transformative journey, and some may need to travel further than others. In a global survey for The digital accountant, responses from more than 4,200 ACCA members, affiliates and students indicate higher ability levels for traditional technologies than new and emerging ones. Respondents report expert ability levels in spreadsheeting (81%) and enterprise resource planning solutions (72%), with much lower levels, for example, for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (20%) and blockchain (20%).

‘Don’t over-rely on your traditional skillsets,’ says Webb. Digital skills should go beyond knowledge of applications to encompass new technologies and the techniques needed to implement them. ‘Operationalisation of technologies such as 5G and the hyperautomation of AI and robotic process automation may rapidly eclipse the recent pace of change,’ says Webb, but he cautions against focusing too much on a particular technology. ‘If we overemphasise our appreciation initially, we may become cynical about its value before it becomes a reality in business,’ he says.

‘What’s needed are the digital skills to understand how technology is enabling or transforming the business model of your client or organisation,’ says Webb. Data is more important than ever; as is understanding its flow and influence on how the business is modelled. ‘Increasingly, within this model, financial and non-financial data converge, and all data is operational,’ says Webb. More and more the metrics driving performance measurement and management extend beyond financial data. He says: ‘Appreciating this aspect of the digital landscape is essential for the finance professional of the future.’

Seize the opportunity

With so many technologies evolving so fast, keeping a broad, high-level watching brief may be the most effective way to stay on top of changes, helped by trusted sources of information, such as ACCA. Taking a few minutes each day to invest in continuous learning and focusing some of this on the digital landscape and language will be beneficial; likewise recent insights from ACCA, in articles such as Digital leadership: Leading finance digital transformation (bit.ly/Digital-leadership-transformation) and the report Explainable AI: Putting the user at the core.

‘To ensure that we are effective, we need to broaden our knowledge base from the application focus that we may traditionally have had, to the understanding of how technology and data create value for organisations, says Helen Brand, ACCA chief executive. ‘We have a clear opportunity to play a significant role in achieving that success.
‘Digitalisation of workplaces will continue apace. Either we are part of that journey or we run the risk of being left behind. We need to make sure that as individuals and as professionals, we seize the opportunity.’

Lesley Meall, journalist