Automated for the people: Accountex 2019
Robert Outram reports on the tech on show at Accountex for 2019
The 2019 Accountex conference and expo attracted record numbers of accountants to London’s ExCeL centre last month. With more than 9,000 delegates, numbers were up by 18% on the previous year.
Accountex is not just about technology, but IT was the main theme for most of the exhibitors and speakers, and the biggest stands and displays were taken up by the big software providers.
Paul Surtees, Managing Director and co-founder of Capitalise.com, which uses technology to match SMEs with sources of growth finance, said: “This time, it was less about ‘how do I get onto the cloud’ and more about ‘OK, what happens next?’”
One of the drivers for change is Making Tax Digital (MTD), the initiative introduced this year that makes digital filing and record keeping mandatory for VAT. Ed Molyneux, Chief Executive Officer of cloud-based accounting software house FreeAgent, said: “If MTD for VAT goes well, HMRC will go ahead with extending it to areas like income tax. There is momentum – and, generally, it will be a benefit for business. It provides useful information for business and gets the software onto people’s radar.”
Chris Downing is Director of Product Management with accountancy software business Sage. He said: “Accountants have never been so busy!”
Chris believes there is a great opportunity for practitioners to focus on the uses of financial information, not just on bookkeeping and compliance. He said: “How are you helping the business owner to achieve their aspirations? Accountants have always been advisers; now it’s time to reset the balance.”
It’s not just about MTD, however. Mike Page is Head of Product Management with My Firms App, which offers a way for the accountant to connect easily with clients via a branded app. He said: “For us, the broader digital revolution, not just MTD, is the driver for new business.”
The more we use technology, the more people skills we need
Mike argues that accountants can now establish themselves as the client’s number one adviser, staking out turf on the one piece of real estate that will never be far from the client – their smartphone.
The pace of change is only set to accelerate. FreeAgent’s recent Accountancy Monitor Survey found that 75% of accountants polled believe that “some” accountancy tasks that are currently manual will be automated within the next five years; 17% say that “all or most” accountancy work will be automated in that timescale.
Ed Molyneux said: “There will not be much left on the table for a firm that is only about record-keeping and compliance. There are opportunities, however, to provide more high value advisory services. Accounting is no longer just a rear-view mirror.”
Damon Anderson, Director of Partner & Product with software group Xero, said: “We have been in the UK for 10 years and the last two years have seen an explosion in user numbers. Automating financial information will be the lead driver, and a key issue for the next five years will be how to put that information to good use. There is an opportunity for all accountants, whether your focus is advisory or compliance.”
Damon also sees an opportunity for further growth for Xero – cloud accounting users still represent a relatively small percentage of UK businesses.
Two themes came out strongly from this year’s Accountex. One is convergence: between accounting and banking, for example, or in the form of accounting platforms that increasingly offer a one-stop shop for functions rather than combining different, and not always compatible, packages for accounting, tax or payroll. We’re increasingly seeing this from the major players in accounting software and also from specialists such as Capium, whose package is specifically focused on the functions that are important for accountancy practitioners.
Finance professionals will need the skills to relate to clients in a new way - and this means more than number-crunching
Another theme is the arrival of tools for SMEs focused on interpreting data in a forward-looking way, rather than just processing it. For example, Sage’s Cascade 50 offers a “plug and play” business intelligence package for the smaller business, while Xero’s “business insights” software helps with issues like cash flow management.
In her keynote speech, Jennifer Warawa, Executive Vice President, Partners, Accountants and Alliances with Sage, made five predictions about the near future for accountancy. First, she said, there will be no more manual data entry, just an automated flow of data. Relationships will be “real time” and the accountant will be “a constantly present companion”. Accountants will provide proactive alerts and notifications for clients, for example flagging up anticipated cash flow issues. Finally, accountants will be charging higher fees – with more advisory services a greater part of the mix – but providing better value for money.
Technology creates an opportunity to develop a new model that should be more satisfying. To make it work, however, finance professionals will need the skills to relate to clients in a new way – and this means more than number-crunching.
This irony was not lost on Della Hudson, founder of Hudson Business Accountants and Advisers, author of The Numbers Business, and a speaker in one of the panel sessions. As she put it: “The more we use technology, the more people skills we need.”