Tech, people skills are key as accountants face changing demands

By Ken Tysiac

Accounting and finance professionals are finding that they must continually learn, unlearn, and relearn to maintain their highly trusted position in a rapidly changing business environment.

Accountants need to understand emerging technologies that are changing the profession, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotic process automation (RPA). They must do so in an environment where nontechnical skills (as defined by the World Economic Forum’s top 10 skills needed for 2020) such as cognitive flexibility, people management, and coordinating with others are as important as traditional technical skills.

Developing those competencies will be important for those who want to succeed in the accounting and finance professions.

“Nothing happens in isolation anymore,” Clar Rosso, the AICPA’s executive vice president–Engagement and Learning Innovation, said in an interview before her AICPA spring Council presentation Monday on reskilling the profession. “Everything is interconnected. Your technical knowledge is applied within specific business contexts to influence the decisions, actions, and behaviors of others and lead the organization at different levels.”

Rosso cited three examples of disruption that have demanded adjustment from professionals:

  • China’s sudden move to a cashless marketplace caused banks to lay off employees who were no longer needed and created a huge demand for professionals who could analyze data sets newly available because of the move to cashless payments and make accurate business predictions.
  • Blockchain is changing business models, business processes, back-office activities, and audit processes. Accountants and auditors will see their roles change significantly as their organizations take advantage of this technology.
  • RPA, through its ability to automate high-volume, repetitive transactions, has businesses grappling with how to structure their teams to focus on higher-value activities.

Many accountants, Rosso said, are especially eager to evolve their technical expertise to enable them to serve their clients and employers in the future. Rosso said it’s just as important, though, for accountants to develop competencies in change management, people skills, and leadership skills.

“Really, it’s about getting people to think differently about how they approach the business environment in which they’re operating, to drive value and embrace the constant, steady state of change,” Rosso said.

To prepare accountants for the future, the AICPA is gearing up to offer a new suite of learning and development opportunities as well as new certificate programs that will focus on new technology and developing an agile, innovative mindset that will help them take advantage of new opportunities.

“It’s really about developing a digital mindset, committing to continuous learning, and embracing an agile business environment,” Rosso said. “Professionals who can thrive in ambiguity, embrace innovation, and approach the workplace with curiosity and a commitment to collaborate will be positioned for future success.”

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA editorial director.

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