In recent months, I have had the privilege of connecting with colleagues from accounting firms both large and small, the CEOs of professional accountancy organizations (PAOs) and students and faculty leaders of universities from around the world about their vision of what’s next for accountants in a future that we all know will require new skills and a different mindset than what’s long been held as the standard.
The conversations, either as lively roundtables or one-on-one, have been candid and representative of the changing dynamics COVID-19 has presented. It’s clear to me that everyone, from the student still earning a degree to the industry veteran who has weathered many economic shifts, sees this moment for what it is: an opportunity to redefine what it means to be an accountant, now and in the future.
Claiming a New Place in Society
COVID-19 disrupted nearly every single business, NGO, and government. As these entities navigated urgent digital transformation, workforce continuity and, quite simply, how to stay operational, leaders turned to accountants. In the words of one CEO, “healthcare workers are on the frontlines of saving lives, and accountants are on the frontlines of saving livelihoods.” Because of this, the profession has benefitted in important ways. The profession has been able to defend its relevance to governments and citizens during this time. Businesses have a renewed sense of the value accountants bring to their long-term success. And cooperation with regulators is also evolving. For many, striving for better harmony and balance with regulators to ensure smarter and more strategic regulation (as opposed to just increased regulation) is critical moving forward. Overall, this crisis has presented profound challenges but also an opportunity for the profession to build on its strong foundations, evolve the skills of its members and become even more central to a high-functioning society.
Enabling Transformation Through Skills
Before the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of respondents IFAC surveyed from small- and medium-sized practices said technology was affecting traditional accounting roles. Post-pandemic, however, digital skills and capabilities have become more like table stakes. As remote work became routine and online client services quickly advanced, one accountant said of digital transformation, “the future became yesterday.”
The profession is now even more acutely focused on skills that enable stronger relationships with clients, better interdisciplinary collaboration, and increased resiliency and flexibility. In fact, when asked what skills have emerged during the pandemic, the response from these conversations was unanimous: change management — the ability to anticipate, respond to, and adapt to changes — is essential. Across the board, firms are shifting focus from outdated inputs, such as hours logged in the office, toward high-value outputs. Accountants today have to show up as true strategic partners, problem solvers, and change agents. To remain relevant, accountants can’t just produce numbers; they are being called to tell the larger story behind the numbers and help solve societal needs in the process.
Investing in the Next Generation
It is impossible to talk about skills without looking at future generations. The education system is in crisis, and as many academics have reminded me, curriculums are slow to evolve. Yet equipping students with the right skills is paramount to the profession’s future. For many institutions, in-person education remains the top priority even while online learning is evolving. Regardless of format, universities are in the midst of redefining their value propositions. Accountancy is competing with other business disciplines, and it’s clear that the professions that invest now are going to come out of the pandemic with a competitive advantage. For accounting programs, specifically, that may mean homing in on the more integrated and impactful aspects of the profession, and the specific skills that will empower accountants to change the future of business. That could take many forms. Micro-credentialing is one example. Emphasizing soft skills training is another. This is a pivotal moment. As one student shared, “accountants are key partners at any point in the lifetime of an organization, and now, we have the chance to prove that.” Educating and mentoring the next generation will ensure the legacy of accounting not only continues but becomes even more essential.
As the industry evolves in the wake of the pandemic, it’s important to recognize that COVID-19 isn’t the only hugely disruptive event on the horizon. Environmental and geopolitical crises, for instance, are increasingly impacting economies and societies. Accountants have to be ready. If we take the lessons learned these past months and commit to sharpening the skills that will keep the industry relevant across stakeholder groups, geographies and generations, today’s accountant will be ready to lead tomorrow.