Special report: Six CAs predict the future of the profession
From AI to ESG, the future of accounting will look very different from its past. Six CAs with a range of experiences and backgrounds plot the profession’s route through the maze of challenges and opportunities
‘The one part of our daily job AI cannot automate is creativity’
John Watson CA – Chair, Intelligent Growth Solutions; CEO of Crosswind Developments; ICAS Council member; NED
Accountants are often seen as people who just count the money. In reality, since the profession has been founded, we have been responsible for accounting for value. Now the value drivers in society are changing, so we talk about the value of the planet, carbon, social cohesion and biodiversity – and it will fall on the accounting profession to respond to that.
Our ability to account for different value metrics beyond money is going to be vital, and teamwork will be one of the most important skills. As we face a more complex world, where finance and data is so big it is impossible for individuals to solve problems on their own.
One must also consider what is on the minds of business leaders and boards daily, namely the state of the economy, the planet and security, both cyber and national. They will change in emphasis over time, with maybe a fourth one added or a third one dropped. But staying close to what the boardroom is thinking about is crucial.
I recently gave a talk on how private equity firms improve management in their portfolio companies. I used my 25 years of experience to hone my message over four slides. I decided to see what AI would say, so I put the same question into Google Bard – and it wrote my slides in the exact same order. But the ethical challenge for CAs is how we avoid the trap of simply assuming what AI tells us is real and audited.
I’d guess that nine out of 10 things we do every day in finance could be automated by AI. The remaining one out of 10 is creativity. People like to think finance professionals are not creatives, but we are. And it’s that creativity we bring every day.
My advice to young CAs is that at some point they will have to question from an ethical point of view a decision that someone has made, and having the experience, skills or network to be able to enter into that discussion with a level of maturity is key. And the CA training really does enforce that early on.
‘Geopolitics may impact economies in a way we are not used to’
David Nussbaum CA – Chair, International Alert, NED and former CEO
Whatever happens in the economy affects accountants. But over the next five to 10 years, geopolitics may impact economies in a way that we have not been so used to of late. The world is in a more volatile state right now. The United Nations is currently not able to function in a way which regulates and moderates international tensions. The World Trade Organisation has problems with having an effective enforcement mechanism because of the difficulties in the appellate body. This means global trade is more complex.
China has developed a dominant position in the processing of many of the critical minerals we need for the energy transition. And we may have lost sight of the importance of processing – it’s one thing to have access to the raw materials, but if you can’t process them, you can’t use them.
Closer to home, we need to make the most of the fact that the CA qualification combines theory and practice with skills and behaviours. You can do a PhD in accounting, but that’s not the same as having a professional qualification.
One of the consequences of the pandemic is the shift to working from home. But my advice to CAs is to make sure that in your early years, you spend significant time face to face with more experienced people. As a trainee, it’s very interesting to see what happens in those meetings. But here’s the bit that would make it even more interesting – as you’re walking back to your desks speak to the senior person who was leading the meeting, find out what they thought of it. You learn how they think and operate.
As a profession, we have some power to influence decisions that affect people’s lives, as well as other businesses – and that extends to professional relationships. How does your employer treat its suppliers? Does it pay on time? Does it deliberately mislead people? How does the corporate spin machine work? The ethics around relationships means we have to operate with high levels of integrity. In the earlier part of your career, deal with the small ethical questions thoughtfully and properly. Because if you reach a senior position, you’ll have already practised the skills you’ll need.
‘How we keep ourselves relevant will be critical’
Annie Graham CA – Partner, EY, and ICAS Council member
The factors that will most impact accountancy over the next five to 10 years will come down to the phenomenal speed of change – which I can only see accelerating further. Historically, CAs have always been at the middle of change, and whether as accountants, entrepreneurs or auditors, I see us at the heart of making positive changes happen. How we keep ourselves relevant and agile in a fast-changing world will be critical, either with an employer or through ICAS.
Our training gives us the technical capability, but also the values which make us adept at responding extremely well to uncertainty and change. For example, dealing with technology as a profession will be vital. I’m excited by AI, in terms of what it can bring to the profession, and how we can use it to spend less time manipulating data and more time helping to drive businesses forward in the right way. But we also need to minimise its risks, while keeping the values of who we are and what we stand for.
Our profession has a strong role to play in regards to sustainability, the impact on society and the contribution we make. During my 25-year career, my own role has changed to become more about how to build and manage teams and set a vision – the softer skills of management leadership.
We also need to ensure the CA qualification remains the basis for an attractive career, giving an excellent grounding in business, commerciality, accounting, ethics and values. My advice for CAs coming up would be to look for the opportunities and seize them. The world is your oyster – but find something you love.
‘You will need to be commercially savvy’
Gareth Lewis CA – Co-founder and CEO, Delio
I don’t think you can work in any kind of desk-based profession without being tech-savvy – and I don’t just mean using Word and Excel. It’s also about being adaptable and open minded to the new technologies on the horizon because if you’re not, there will be someone else who is.
Understanding the nuances between being a finance or a commercial person will also become more important in the future. It’s no longer fine to say that you just do finance because the finance function is so all-encompassing. You need to be commercially savvy in a way that wouldn’t have been necessary in the past.
I expect to see a lot of ethical challenges around ensuring the industry still carries weight in the age of AI. The decisions being made concerning the application of new technologies will pose dilemmas for us all. It’s always easy to take the path of least resistance, but sometimes that path might not be the most ethical in terms of the best possible performance of your duties.
There is always a lag between the ability to regulate and control emerging industries compared with the established legacy industries. We’ve seen it in finance, with the collapse of FTX, which, it seems, was getting away with things that wouldn’t happen in a more established and properly regulated industry.
I think the accounting profession plays an important role here – and that will create ethical challenges in fast-moving industries where decisions need to be made quickly. Accountants may have to step in, almost in lieu of a regulatory environment that has failed to keep up.
We’ve all heard it in the past, when somebody says this new technology is going to take away everyone’s job. It doesn’t necessarily do that – it just sets a new paradigm. Again, you will need to be adaptable, just as we all had to be during the early days of Covid-19.
‘There’s an obligation on accountants not to give quick answers’
David Cruickshank CA – Chair, McInroy & Wood and Jupiter Fund Management; Former Global Chair, Deloitte; ICAS Council member
The world is moving faster than at any time I can remember in my professional career. Business, and its role in society is changing, and inevitably CAs are at the intersection of that. So we have to be aware of those changes and respond to them appropriately.
Many of these are ethical challenges which we face all the time. AI throws up huge and exciting opportunities. I also like the fact we’re helping young people entering the workforce to build their careers in a non-linear way. Their working lives will take very different shapes in the future, and that will be a big factor in the accountancy profession, as it trains so many young people.
I sat on Accounting for Sustainability’s council for a number of years and its whole thesis was that what gets measured gets done. For businesses, organisations and government, measurement is at the heart of sustainable societies, work practices and business.
Here, accountants can drive so much of the change – not only recording the change, but working out ways to make it real, being proactive and coming up with different measurements because I think so many people are still struggling: which KPIs do we use? What are the measurement criteria? And of course there is a multiplicity of sustainability reporting bodies in this space now. So accountants have a critical role here.
In an era when attention spans are reduced, I think there’s an obligation on accountants to take time to analyse and reflect on what the information is saying, and not to succumb to the temptation just to give quick answers because people want quick answers and easy headlines.
My advice for those just starting out as a CA is: work hard, ask questions, listen all the time and discuss things with more experienced colleagues. You’ll learn a lot.
‘The ESG agenda is massive now and that will continue at pace’
David Gammie CA – CFO, Beer52
Technology, automation and data are going to be huge levers of change for the profession as well as the wider world. Ways of working will continue to evolve materially and the companies that are likely to be leaders in their respective sectors will be those that embrace machine learning and AI.
Alongside this, the ESG [environmental, social, governance] agenda is massive now. We’re already seeing the allocation and affordability of capital being linked to companies’ adoption of ESG policies and that is going to continue at pace. The world is becoming smaller, we are all more interlinked, so the ability to operate on a cross-border basis will be hugely important. We will have to grapple with how we can create a suite of objective ESG standards and what the reasonable benchmarks will be. The profession can play a leading role in developing standards that are credible and compatible across different industries and countries.
Regulation will also be a key feature of ESG around AI and other developments, such as crypto. The question is how do we create regulation that’s fit for purpose in the 21st century? I think it will be incredibly difficult to implement regulation around AI, for example, at a global level. It will need to be based on applied principles, rather than be rules based, because AI has such a wide practical application. It will demand more granular approaches and subsets of regulation for certain applications because it will be used so differently across different industries. Within financial services, for example, there will need to be considerations around how applications are screened to ensure people are treated fairly.
My advice to younger CAs is to work on their soft skills. Yes, being a technical expert is important for certain roles, but so too is being a good manager or a more rounded individual. So don’t think that just because you’re really good technically, you’ll be successful – often that’s a small element of the role. It’s about how you interact with others, whether clients or colleagues.