ICAS President: CAs should view technology as friend, not foe
Digitalisation is not an optional extra, but a chance to reimagine how we create value for business, clients and public, says Bruce Pritchard CA
For those of a certain age, there’s been a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it element to the pace of technological innovation. In the past 30 years, we’ve seen the near death of the fax and physical business correspondence and the concomitant rise of email and video-conferencing. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are already influencing the ways we live, work and shop.
When I trained as a CA, we did most things manually, and the first portable computers with bookkeeping packages were only just arriving. Now all of that and more is available in the palm of your hand. It shows how fast technology has advanced. And, crucially, its sophistication has advanced too – from basic accounting programs through to comprehensive enterprise resource planning systems. Now, business processes at the largest scale are controlled by algorithms.
Many CAs joining the profession today will be digital natives, having grown up with broadband and the earliest smartphones. It certainly gives a head start in a world that will only become more digital, but the challenge technology poses to the profession isn’t simply one of age – but of relevance. As professionals, we need to consider how technology is creating fundamental shifts in our roles and in the services we offer.
For accountants, technology has evolved to influence the type of tasks we perform and, at a greater scale, where the profession can add most value for employers and clients. It is no longer just an efficiency gain. When a calculation can be performed at a fraction of a second, its mechanics become far less valuable. But CAs have the business knowledge to put data and metrics in context, weaving together disparate information in a way that improves decision-making and outcomes. And I know many CAs will already have begun experiencing this shift in responsibilities – occupying the position of a business adviser – in recent years.
As technology continues to learn skills that currently fall within the realm of the accountant, we will have already moved on to the next thing.
It’s also worth highlighting that even the most sophisticated technology can run afoul of human error. And identifying and fixing that is one area of accountancy that looks unlikely to change. It can stem from the coding and programming underpinning the technology itself. And the old adage of “garbage in, garbage out” still holds true. If those using technology do not fully understand its functionality – or lack data robust enough to work with – then it soon meets its limitations. Even today’s most advanced artificial intelligence cannot replicate the gut feeling that comes from looking at a set of financial statements and seeing a number that just doesn’t sit right.
But the momentum behind technological advancement is so strong, so all-encompassing, that accountancy must embrace it in order to stay relevant and continue providing valuable services. The challenge for the profession is to keep adapting so that we’re gaining new skills and competencies from the adoption of innovative technologies, rather than being replaced by them.
Individually, CAs have a responsibility to seek out, and educate themselves on, developments affecting their role and sector. We all know that the day we stop keeping pace is the day we get left behind. That’s a mantra that should extend to the profession as a whole, too, even if the discussion becomes a little more existential in nature. We have a responsibility – to employers, clients and the wider public – to understand the direction of travel and stay ahead of it. So, as technology continues to learn skills that currently fall within the realm of the accountant, we will have already moved on to the next thing. A core part of being a CA in the future will be contributing to the supervision and development of technology, steering progress so that it maintains the standards and rigour that underpin our profession.
That’s why advancing technology should be viewed as an incredible opportunity. With enough foresight, we can help shape the twin futures of accountancy and business for many years to come, strengthening our position as a trusted voice that cuts through the noise. The core skills of the CA will always be thoughtful analysis and interpretation – it’s just the application of those skills that will evolve over time. By being proactive, we will have the privilege of deciding where exactly to place ourselves in the chain of value creation.