An onrushing tide of change is sweeping through professional accountancy. Technology, in the form of artificial intelligence, data analytics and blockchain, is transforming the profession in the way it has disrupted media, manufacturing, advertising – the list of industries goes on.
But the doomsayers are wrong; the profession is not fated to fade away. It can move with the tide, not against it, while remaining a pillar of business assurance, analysis and validation.
This change demands a radical new assemblage of skills – and we see this pattern being repeated not just in accountancy but in all professional services. The tide of technology will mean less time spent in traditional roles but potentially richer, more satisfying careers, as professionals are relieved from many of the mundane, repetitive tasks better done by technology and algorithms. And there will be an expansion of career opportunities related to technology, its applications and proliferation inside professional firms.
We enjoy a front-row seat on this transformation as chartered professional accountants – one of us now a leader of strategy and innovation inside a national law firm and the other an accounting academic who heads an undergraduate business school program. We are bracing for – indeed, welcoming – a redesign of professional careers and thus a rethinking of how business schools prepare young people for success in this new world.
In the professional world we are now entering, the traditional technical skills are simply table stakes, a poker-playing analogy that describes the bare minimum of resources you need to bring to the table to play the game. Technical competencies are still absolutely essential for a successful career and any professional firm will only prosper if its technical expertise is outstanding. But that is not enough. To distinguish yourself as a professional, you need to maximize the human skills that no machine can perform – the softer skills – of communication, critical thinking, judgment, emotional intelligence and creativity.
This imperative is occurring not just in accountancy but in all professions – including law, engineering and medicine. Many will be relieved to be spared from ho-hum tasks they do not enjoy or find fulfilling. Others will feel somewhat adrift. But they all must take the leap – it means a more satisfying career that is better connected to their personal values and ideals.
But it will place enormous pressure on leaders of professional firms, as they manage the co-existence and inter-relationship of professional skills and supportive technology inside organizations. They must align the hiring model, training, rewards and incentives, as well as celebrations of achievement, to the new professional demands and value delivered to clients. That means going beyond the usual measures of hard work and hours expended.
People will be increasingly evaluated and compensated according to not just their diligence but their contributions to organizational effectiveness and client solutions in a technological age – for example, in applying productive technology to how they deliver value. Freed from mundane tasks, professionals will still work hard – these are not 9-to-5 occupations – but their work can create much more value for their firms and clients, and themselves.
Educators have to respond – to give future accountants and other aspiring professionals the tools to succeed and prosper in a disruptive environment. University programs will be upended. Technical skills will still be taught but these skills can be gained in myriad ways. Already there is a shift away from the textbook and the classroom to online learning.
With their underpinning of fundamental business skills, students advancing through their undergrad years will develop leadership, agility and creativity competencies – not just for their future careers, but for volunteer work, families and communities.
That means a move away from a barrage of compulsory classroom courses and toward experiential learning. Undergraduate accounting students, for example, should increasingly experience courses that emphasize real-life situational projects, rather than simply conventional courses. Yes, it will be challenging to assess students’ progress in interactive and leadership skills, especially when some are naturally more adept than others in these areas. Certainly, educators have to ask: How do I evaluate and assess skills such as creativity and emotional intelligence in a business program? In this environment, there will be fewer numerical or letter marks and more pass/fail grading. Printed grade transcripts will not be as important when the key assessment is performance in interactive, teaming and problem-solving situations.
It all sounds daunting, but there is an exciting way forward. At the root of behaviour change is inspiration; people will not change their behaviour unless they are motivated at the core of their being. Unless educators and business leaders can link this change back to a sense of fulfillment and higher purpose in life, professionals will not readily embrace this great transformation. We believe they can do that and flourish from it. Far from doomsayers, we look forward to the shift.
Susan McCracken is associate dean, academic, and associate professor, accounting and financial management services, at the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University. Gino Scapillati is vice-chair, strategy and innovation at the law firm Bennett Jones and former vice-chair of PwC Canada and member of the PwC Global Board. Both are Fellow Chartered Professional Accountants.