Rob Pooley is an Assistant Manager at Haines Watts and discusses how technology has changed the industry, the skills needed for accountants working in practice and how ACCA has kept at the forefront of upskilling students.
The path to becoming an accountant can be a relentless and unforgiving one, due to the number of exams that must be passed and the time dedicated to complete the qualification. After taking four and a half years to qualify as a chartered accountant with ACCA, I was extremely proud to have finally made this career milestone in April 2022.
However, it is not uncommon for students to have doubts throughout the qualification process. It is only human for students to question themselves, with thoughts such as “Am I good enough to pass all the exams? How long will it actually take to finish the qualification if I suffer setbacks? Is my job at risk if I fail multiple exams?”. The ACCA qualification is a globally respected qualification because of the character it builds within students and rewards those who are able to persevere and deliver high standards even when faced with challenging conditions.
The questions that are becoming more and more prominent today are where does the place of technology lie within the accounting industry? And how has ACCA incorporated the ever-growing presence of technology within its syllabus?
Change in the industry
Core accounting products like Xero, Quickbooks and Sage have brought ‘the cloud’ to the forefront of the industry, bringing an abundance of benefits such as multi-user logins, live bank feeds and the ability for business owners to view their business performance and position in real time. The app eco system has grown exponentially and has resulted in specialised applications being introduced such as software for management reporting, business expense claims, cashflow, credit control and many more being conceived as quickly they are being made redundant by new software entering the market.
Compliance has historically led the industry, with the majority of the time and effort revolving around making sure the correct standards are being adhered too, returns having to be filed within the deadlines and the repetitive annual conversations being had with clients. The introduction of the software mentioned above has led to the automation of bookkeeping and a variety of applications being used to help businesses improve their processes. This means that as less time is expended on compliance, there is more time to understand clients’ problems by touching base more frequently as well as having the capacity to offer advisory services to clients.
Through the frequency that data is recorded and the quality of data that is obtained, more valuable services can be given to clients. Bespoke management reporting can be implemented with clients being advised on how well they are performing against key performance indicators. Credit control services can be supplied where emails chasing for outstanding debt can be automated depending on the invoice amount and how long debts have been outstanding. Cashflow forecasting and monitoring can be achieved and used to help protect clients from shortfalls and finance can be raised to plug any gaps in cash.
" The shift in emphasis within the industry from compliance to advisory has inevitably led to practices demanding a different skill set from their employees."
The stereotypical skill set of an accountant would contain competences such as a proficiency with numbers, a methodical way of working and to have an impeccable attention to detail. Advisory services however will require accountants to adopt different skills and behaviours. Examples include being proactive in their contact with clients, to demonstrate strong communicational skills, not only being able to analyse quantitative data but also incorporating qualitative information to help provide insight into performance and to be able to have a holistic approach and forward-thinking mindset when helping clients plan for the future.
Accountants also now have to have the knowledge and skills to advise clients on the best processes to adopt while using features such as E-invoicing, automating bank reconciliation and optical character recognition. Installing these processes will help improve the quality of the data and mean regular conversations can be held based on real time management information to help improve the quality of decision making.
Technology has revolutionised the industry and altered the skills demanded, with accountants now needing to harness the power of technology to create value and use advisory services to drive business. Practices that bury their heads in the sand will become static and will not be able to compete with practices that implement technology throughout their practice.
I am lucky that I work for Haines Watts Manchester, a now digital practice who specialises in providing cloud services and helping businesses to achieve their goals through offering high quality advisory services.
"I have spoken about the changes in the industry and the skills now required by accountants, however have ACCA taken these changes into the syllabus? The answer is yes."
From my own experience from studying for the advanced performance management paper, there is a vast amount of content based on technology such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, the characteristics, security and risks of big data, process improvements, types of management information systems and cloud accounting. This is all tested within a scenario-based exam and means that the problem-solving techniques used in the ACCA exams are directly applicable to real life situations faced by accountants.
In the strategic business leader exam, I had to explain the changing role of the accountant and write a letter to employees, explaining how their new role would change from their existing duties. This is direct evidence that not only will students be tested on current issues and technology; they will also have to demonstrate the skill of communication and be rewarded on the quality of their argument.
In summary, the accounting profession has seen a fundamental shift in focus from compliance to advisory, demanding new skills from employees and ACCA has reacted successfully by introducing relevant and up to date content to ensure that students are well equipped to practise in the new digital world.