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The Professional Accountant

of tomorrow
South African Institute of Professional Accountants
09 September 2020

Profound changes in the nature of accounting mean that tomorrow’s Professional Accountants will need a new set of skills.

By Professor Rashied Small, Executive: Centre of Future Excellence (CoFE), South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA)

In a previous article, I explored the trends that are changing the accounting profession, particularly as they affect Professional Accountants. I argued that increasingly intelligent technology, such as (Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain and Robotic Automation Systems, will perform many of the services traditionally delivered by human accountants, and that this will, in turn, drive client demand for a different set of services from accountants, who will ultimately become trusted business advisors rather than simply “numbers” men and women.

If this is correct—and I believe it is and that the process of change is already underway-then the next question is what current and aspiring Professional Accountants need to do to equip themselves for this unfolding new world. The short answer is to acquire a new set of skills.

Analytical and interpretive skills.

As technology plays a greater role in facilitating the production of information, and also of at least the basic compliance functions, Professional Accountants will have to take on the role of analysing the figures (internal and external) in order to provide insights to the client organisation’s executives. This analysis will have to consider not only the figures produced via technology but also the vast amount of external data available, including both structured and unstructured data for better decision making.

The analysis required of Professional Accountants will be sophisticated, spanning three types of analysis. Prescriptive analysis will examine how the company performed in relation to its predetermined targets, while diagnostic analysis will attempt to provide explanations for why specific results were obtained. The diagnostic analysis would consider both financial and non-financial data, including decisions taken by management and operational activities as well as the figures themselves, in order to look at what the consequences of management decisions actually were, and whether they can be justified. These results from the prescriptive and diagnostic analysis should be used to perform predictive analysis that will help to drive future decisions and actions.

Professional Accountants will also have to undertake predictive analysis by attempting to help their clients create credible and useful future scenarios to guide planning and strategy. I’m not suggesting the traditional gypsy lady and her crystal ball, of course, but the intelligent use of data analytics to provide a factual basis for this most difficult kind of decision-making. This moves the Professional Accountant into an important role as a valued-added trusted business advisor.

To fulfil their increasingly analytical role, Professional Accountants will need a set of complementary technical or professional skills, in particular professional judgement and professional scepticism. This will mean looking at “the numbers” holistically, within the context of the company’s operations and performance as well as the economy. What story are the numbers telling about the organisation-and is it the true story?

Data-analysis skills.

Based on the point above, it is clear that tomorrow’s Professional Accountant will need to be highly skilled in data analysis, and that means understanding a range of complementary topics such as statistics.

Technology skills.

Technology will not only take over many of the traditional accounting tasks, but it will also play a key role in supporting Professional Accountants as they move into their new role. Deep expertise in how to use software to perform top-level analysis and to manipulate information will be critical.

Leadership skills.

As Professional Accountants morph into trusted business advisors, they will need to acquire the skills to influence the client organisation’s leaders.

People-management skills.

As remote working becomes more mainstream and the working model becomes hybrid, Professional Accountants will have to hone their ability to manage and collaborate with distributed teams using digital platforms in order to render quality services as demanded by their clients.

Business-modelling and -engineering skills.

In his or her role as a trusted business advisor, the Professional Accountant will need to develop specific expertise related to fine-tuning businesses, turning businesses around or, increasingly, totally recalibrating business models when markets are disrupted.

Professional Accountants have always distinguished themselves by a broad, business-focused outlook that goes beyond just the figures. In that sense, the trajectory of the profession suits them, but they will need to pay careful attention to ensure they have the requisite skills.