This article was first published in the July/August international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

As the business and regulatory environment evolves, so do the demands made of professional accountants. ACCA’s report, Professional accountants – the future, highlighted the need for continued development of skills and competencies relevant to the varied roles that individuals play. The combination of technical knowledge, skills and abilities, combined with interpersonal behaviours and qualities, amounts to a personal ‘professional quotient’ (PQ) appropriate to an individual’s particular role and stage of career.

For audit and assurance professionals, the challenge is to respond to particular changes and new demands in the audit and assurance field. ACCA’s research, based on a series of workshops with members around the world, has confirmed the important role played by audit and assurance in the operation of capital markets and wider economic activity. Audit and other forms of assurance report provide levels of comfort not only to current and prospective shareholders, but also to management, boards, trustees, regulators and other stakeholders. It’s therefore vital that audit and assurance professionals develop the right mix of skills and competencies to fulfil their roles properly. 

Responding to change

Financial statements contain an increasing amount of data, responding to demand for more transparency and comparability in corporate reporting, and more relevant and useful information. The nature of that data is also changing, including more non-financial information, such as content related to corporate social responsibility (CSR).  

The audit market is also undergoing change. Reforms in Europe are triggering a wave of audit tendering activity by larger listed companies. Meanwhile, smaller companies are increasingly being released from the statutory audit requirement, opening up opportunities for new forms of alternative assurance. There are some notable exceptions, such as Hong Kong, where all registered companies are still required to have a statutory financial statement audit.

Professionals working in the audit and assurance field are expected to face new technical challenges over the next decade. Many participants in ACCA’s workshops cited the audit of fair value and of international groups as emerging hurdles. Gaining information on the fair values of financial instruments can be particularly difficult, for example, while group audits with an international reach require working with component auditors from different countries, firms and cultures.  

Increased use of technology and automation is also expected to have an effect, reducing the need for basic ‘tick and bash’ work and the manual evaluation of supporting documents. Auditors will also need to keep up with other emerging trends such as real-time assurance and new business and production models made possible by new technologies in areas such as mobile, big data, robotics and digital service delivery.   

Planning for action

Audit and assurance professionals of the future will need to show strong technical knowledge, IT expertise and interpersonal competencies to ensure they have the necessary PQ. Based on ACCA’s global member workshops, the 10 most important audit and assurance competencies over the next five to 10 years have been identified (see box). Professional ethics top the list. It will remain vitally important for audit and assurance professionals to think and behave with integrity, independence and professional scepticism and to demonstrate this to all stakeholders. 

The ability to observe and apply laws and regulations will also be highly important. Audit and assurance professionals will need to show knowledge of new auditing standards and legal liability issues, as well as relevant local and international regulations.

IT knowledge is also expected to be highly relevant – and this is one area where workshop participants think skills are currently lacking. However, audit firms are planning to develop expertise in using technology for data analysis during audit and assurance engagements, replacing sampling with searches that include 100% of the data set. A shift from retrospective to predictive analysis is also expected by 2020-25. 

Communication ability – also in the top 10 – is another area where there is room for improvement. Communication is vital for managing relationships inside and outside audit firms, with audit teams, management, component auditors, experts, those charged with governance and others. Given the globalisation of business, effective communication increasingly requires language skills and awareness of regional variations in business practices, communication styles and cultural norms. 

Other top 10 skills that audit and assurance professionals need to develop include report writing, management skills and quality control competencies (for example, when forming audit teams and assessing engagement planning and performance). Audit and assurance professionals will also need to be able to play their part in tackling the risk of material misstatement due to fraud and error. And they will need the capability to apply assurance techniques to new types of reporting, including CSR reporting and integrated reporting, and to deliver non-audit assurance.    

The top 10 list does not represent the only skills that audit professionals will need. Based on workshop participants’ views, other skills that will be increasingly important to audit and assurance professionals over the next five to 10 years include business acumen, money laundering, analytical thinking, forensic audit, cross-functional working and the ability to take more of a global perspective. 

Sarah Perrin, journalist