This article was first published in the November 2018 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

What does it mean to be human? What makes you who you are? Is it your body? Your emotions? Your soul? Your brain? All your experiences?

As a human, you are all of this and more. You think and feel. You are capable of complex cognitive and intellectual feats and of high levels of motivation and self-awareness. But in a world where artificial intelligence (AI) is taking over tasks that require memorisation and logic, how will your human intelligence retain its advantage? What’s your superpower going to be?

The answer could be emotional intelligence. ‘This is an area that ACCA has been exploring,’ says Narayanan Vaidyanathan, head of business insights at ACCA. ‘We know that to thrive now and into the future professional accountants need an optimal and evolving combination of professional competencies or quotients.’ Each of these quotients consists of a collection of technical knowledge, skills and abilities, combined with interpersonal behaviours and qualities. ACCA has identified seven (see panel on page 40), including one for emotional intelligence (EQ).

For professional accountants, ACCA characterises EQ as ‘the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others, harness and apply them to tasks, and regulate and manage them’. New ACCA research has investigated what the current state of EQ looks like around the profession and what the implications of technology development may be for EQ.

A very different future

For its research, ACCA looked at six areas of impact – change readiness, cognition and learning, ethics and beliefs, human-machine interaction, increased diversity, and shifting power – then considered the implications for five emotional competencies that are key to the EQ of professional accountants: growth mindset, self-knowledge, perspective, empathy and influence. ‘The purpose of this work is not to dive into the psychology of EQ but to contextualise it for the accounting profession,’ says Vaidyanathan. Doing this will help to prepare accountants for a very different future.

Rachel Grimes, technology CFO at financial services company Westpac and president of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC – the global body for the accountancy profession), says: ‘It is vital that the profession embraces technology so that we and the next generation of accountants are agents of change, helping to shape the technology agenda, not simply following it. Cloud-based computing, hosted applications, big data and the rise of machine learning are already transforming the way we work. As the quantity and sources of data increase, the need for human accountants to understand context, interpret nuance and apply professional judgment also grows.’

New symbiosis

Professional accountants also need to reassess their relationship with technology itself. Lynn Morrison, ACCA panel member and leader of EY Oceania’s China assurance practice, is anticipating a paradigm shift. ‘Relationships between humans and technology are changing fundamentally,’ she says. ‘We will need to challenge the way we think of work and understand the pros and cons of this changing relationship. We will have to learn how to build and manage our relationship with technology and manage the impact both personally and professionally.’

There has always been a symbiotic relationship between accountants and technology, but in future it will need to be stronger and more intimate. ‘Accountants have seen technology as a tool to help us work more efficiently, to perform better and to automate boring tasks in the past,’ says Morrison. ‘With further technological advances in areas of robotic process automation, AI and blockchain, etc, we can predict that some tasks will be completely replaced by technology in the future.

‘Accountants need to be more resilient in this transition process, have an open, growth mindset about continuously reskilling ourselves – in particular those human skills – and focus on more important judgmental and strategic areas.’

Morrison sees a future where human processing units and computer processing units will be working together, learning from each other and achieving more through their close collaboration than either could achieve alone. The skillsets of collaboration and technology are increasingly overlapping, as highlighted in the recent Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ) report The Future of Talent: Opportunities Unlimited.

Vital interaction

Futurist and researcher Mark Pesce suggests opening up finance teams and accountancy firms to collaborate more closely with colleagues and with technology itself: ‘Every time we have a basic question we reach into our pocket, take out a smartphone and get the answer from Google, Wikipedia or Siri,’ he points out. ‘So we are already creatures who are a combination of human intelligence and machine learning.’

In the future, what accountants and software tools can learn from each other will expand, and members of the profession will no longer be limited by their personal knowledge or the length of their career. The pyramid structure that has traditionally characterised accountancy firms and finance departments will no longer be necessary. However, as Matthew Campbell, technology audit director at KPMG, says: ‘Knowing how to interact with and leverage the knowledge of hundreds if not thousands of individuals through cognitive technology will drive a different skillset in finance professionals.’

The profession’s use of AI technologies and techniques is not yet widespread, but it is already informing and enhancing decision-making by professional accountants in companies and practices across numerous specialist areas. Developments in financial statement audit may exemplify the future direction for the profession by showing how existing technologies are changing established ways of working, how emerging technology trends may undermine business models and institutional power structures, and how factors such as these increase the importance of EQ. Auditors and other professional accountants will need emotional competencies that allow them to adapt to technology-enabled transformations much faster than they have ever needed to in the past.

Some professional accountants may need to develop new social competencies and technology skills if they are to inspire, encourage and direct compellingly in peer-to-peer environments. Ways of developing and exerting leadership, influencing, motivating, mentoring team members and developing and demonstrating empathy will become increasingly important.

The wider implications of this shift are eloquently explained by Rachel Botsman, lecturer at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and expert on trust and the collaborative economy. In her book Who Can You Trust? How Technology Brought Us Together – and Why It Could Drive Us Apart, she places the world on the cusp of a massive social change driven by technologies that are rewriting the rules of human relationships. ‘We might have lost faith in institutions and leaders, but a new world order is emerging,’ she declares.

If accountants are to adapt successfully to this shift they will need to understand how trust is built, managed, lost and repaired in an age of distributed trust and increasingly smart machines, and carefully assess the implications for EQ. Otherwise they will need to develop another superpower.

Lesley Meall, journalist