New ways of thinking vital for accountants, but so are old-school values

By Neil Amato

Daniel Burrus spoke plenty Monday about how technology is changing rapidly and how accountants must be better anticipatory thinkers to serve organizations and clients in the future.

Burrus, an author, futurist, and consultant, also said that, for all the disruption ahead, the key to success in the future is integration of the past and present, of core skills, and of new ways of thinking.

“The future is all about relationships and people, and trust is a cornerstone to it,” Burrus said Monday in front of a live and virtual audience for an event hosted by the Maryland Association of CPAs. “How do you get [trust]? Honesty, integrity, delivering on promises. There are certain things we don’t want to change in this profession. … But if you change nothing, you will fail.”

His presentation and a panel discussion that followed highlighted some of the issues facing business and the accounting profession. Burrus asked the audience members if they were changing and learning as fast as their internal and external customers were. And he wasn’t just talking about whether accountants had the latest software update on their smartphone.

“Our biggest problem isn’t legacy systems,” Burrus said. “It’s legacy thinking.”

Anticipatory thinking is vital. Accountants can engage in this practice by recognizing “hard trends”—ones that will certainly occur, such as acceleration of technology—and then making time to think about how those trends will affect future business models.

Burrus said, for instance, he doesn’t want to work with an accounting firm that is still paper-based.

“If they come in with a lot of folders and binders, I know they’re out of touch,” Burrus said. “I already know I’m working with a rearview mirror person.”

He said that some clients might be past-oriented and want hard copies of documents. But even those clients should be given the opportunity to see the value that technology can bring. By showing the same information dynamically on a tablet, accountants can walk their clients into the future.

Burrus said one key competency in being more anticipatory is the ability to perform a premortem. Instead of learning hard lessons after a project launches and possibly fails, the use of a premortem helps to identify potential problems before the project is deployed.

“Getting that ability to make the invisible visible, it’s something you can offer people,” Burrus said.

Joey Havens, CPA, CGMA, a partner at Horne LLP in Jackson, Miss., said during a panel discussion that he saw three “anchors” that slowed accountants down:

Clinging to the same business model. “We’ve been more about selling time than selling wisdom,” he said.

Dependence on technical competence. He said mastery of technical aspects has been the accountant’s “door opener” for a while. Now, there is a shift to being more of a strategist, a “big change” for accountants.

A leadership void. Havens said best practices for leadership development have not been shared in the profession: “For the most part, it’s ‘Sink or swim, you’ll figure it out.’ ”

Neil Amato ( ) is a JofA senior editor.

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