There’s no doubt that technology is having a significant impact on the way that financial data is collected, processed, analysed and delivered to clients. And it’s clear that roles and responsibilities are changing as firms understand how technology can be used to bring about changes in systems, processes and behaviour. Existing jobs are being redefined and new ones created as firms seek to create greater efficiency of production and value of service.

A recent review of job recruitment advertising for accountants identified the following changes in the skills and aptitudes required for employment:

* Requirement for digital skills – 200% increase
* Demand for critical thinking – 150% increase
* Need for creativity in problem solving – 50% increase
* Strong presentation and communication skills – 25% increase

ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) recently published a comprehensive white paper ‘Professional accountants – the future:  Drivers of change and future skills.’ This paper stated that ‘the accountancy profession will evolve significantly over the next decade … all professional accountants will be expected to look beyond the numbers, collaborate, think and behave more strategically.’

This report identified 7 professional quotients for success in accounting:

1. Technical and ethical competencies – the skills and abilities to perform activities consistently to a defined standard while maintaining the highest standards of integrity, independence and scepticism
2. Intelligence – the ability to acquire and use knowledge: thinking, reasoning and solving problems
3. Creativity – the ability to use existing knowledge in a new situation, to make connections, explore potential outcomes and generate new ideas
4. Digital quotient – the awareness and application of existing and emerging digital technologies, capabilities, practices, strategies and culture
5. Emotional Intelligence – the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others, harness and apply them to tasks and regulate and manage them
6. Vision – the ability to anticipate future trends accurately by extrapolating existing trends and facts, and filling the baps by thinking innovatively
7. Experience – the ability and skills to understand client expectations, meet desired outcomes and create value.

It’s clear that a broad range of skills beyond technical competence is necessary to really engage with clients in the future public practice environment. Whilst individuals are always responsible for their own professional development, the leaders and managers of accounting firms also need to be focusing on providing appropriate training and support to their staff.  Probably the most important skill that all of us will have to master will be continual growth and development. The days of learning to do something and repeating that until retirement are long gone. Even today, with automation in its earliest stage, things change rapidly and we have to find new ways to do old things or figure out how to do something altogether new almost every other week.

Let’s look at some of the trends we’re seeing in public practice accounting in relation to the development of new skills:

1. Engagement and communication is king

Many firms are struggling with the implementation of software platforms in the advisory space. Technology is sometimes seen as an end in itself (the service), whereas it is simply an enabler of a change in behaviour. For example, an accountant wishing to develop stronger relationships with business clients may see real-time financial reporting as a way to engage more readily with clients. However, without the skill to open up conversations, the benefit is simply not seen. When clients fail to agree to ‘quarterly financial reports and meetings,’ it’s often clear that the value proposition has been misdirected towards outputs (reports and meetings) rather than process (engagement and communication). It’s the latter that provides real value to clients.

2. Client contact should happen as early as possible

It’s no good having managers who are unable to have broad conversations with clients. By broad conversations, I mean conversations that go beyond the tax and accounting matters at hand. The best way to develop client relationships is to show an interest in the client. And this should start as early as possible when working in public practice. How many of your younger staff have the opportunity to talk with clients (with clear guidelines of course). It’s only by starting this process early that accountants will develop the confidence to have broad and deep conversations with clients.

3. Analytical skills are essential for the modern accountant

We’re all aware of the importance of seeing ‘beyond the numbers’ to really understand what’s going on in the client’s world. So, what are you doing to teach these skills to your accountants? A simple curiosity about the numbers is a great way to start. Staff should be encouraged to ask questions, even if they seem basic. It’s often the basic things that are overlooked. Basic analytics starts with evaluating past patterns to understand the reasons beyond the patterns. Our staff should then be trained to predict the future based on these patterns and finally to use this data to drive client decisions to improve financial performance.

4. Collaboration is required to bring information together

A high level of collaboration is required to bring together all the information your firm has about the client, especially if you have a team-based approach to client relationship management. With an increasing focus on a broad range of accounting and advisory services for clients, sharing information is essential. Clearly, technology can support this process. However, nothing is more effective than direct communication between colleagues. What do you do to encourage collaboration? Or do your people continue to take a ‘production line’ approach to client management? The best way to develop collaborative skills is to lead by example.

5. Use leverage to create opportunity to add value

Effective leverage requires the delegation of both workflow and client relationship responsibility. It frees up capacity to focus on what’s important to the client. Partners and managers who complain that their staff are unwilling or unable to step up are often struggling themselves to delegate  responsibility. As an external advisor, I’m often aware of the transformation that people can make when given some freedom to learn (and make mistakes) by being given responsibility for client projects and tasks.

6. Focus on new KPIs to bring about new behaviour

It’s clear that a focus on productivity (chargeable hours) encourages a production-line mentality. Efficiency and value of work are unknown qualities in an environment where inputs and outputs are of primary concern. Do your staff act as highly qualified and paid factory workers? To change behaviour, focus on both the quantity and quality of communication with clients, including engagement, management of scope, active listening and client feedback. It’s not difficult to set up KPIs around each of these activitites. Keep production humming along in the background, but focus on the skills you want your staff to develop to add value to clients and to your firm.

7. Use flexible training platforms for professional development

Millenials are generally rather good at diagnosing their learning gaps, so they are more interested in bridging these gaps than in the standard courses everyone attends. They like to choose when they learn, which inevitably is a combination of at work training and away from work learning. They generally prefer interaction, movement, video and audio files over text anytime.  They like to choose how much they learn at any one time and what device they use for learning. A blended learning approach which combines both face to face coaching with online learning is often the best way to engage your people (of all ages).

Is your firm prepared for the future of public practice?

Here we have  a blueprint for developing the skills and capabilities we need in our people today. What is your firm doing to develop these skills? If you’re not focused on the professional development of your staff beyond technical skills, then your firm will struggle to be sustainable into the future.

Dale Crosby

This article was published in the 2018 Good Bad Ugly Benchmark report. Click here to purchase the report.

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