What to Do When the Future Looks Scary
Every day another headline jumps out and screams for your attention. Maybe today the robo-accountants are rising up and will put us all out of jobs. Tomorrow will be blockchain and an end to compliance work. After that, predictive analytics, machine learning, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence, dashboards and KPIs, real-time auditing, internet of things, data lakes, cognitive expert advisors and algorithms. The list of disruptive technologies that will have a real and lasting impact on the accounting profession is growing.
Are you going to be impacted by disruptive technologies? Yes. Will it change the way you work? Yes. Will it be uncomfortable? Almost certainly. Can you avoid it? Maybe for a little while. Then your firm will get passed by and become irrelevant. You’ll either need to reinvent the firm or fall further and further behind. So why bother building a practice when the future looks so grim?
You’ve been reading too many headlines! No one ever said there wasn’t anything you could do to prepare!
“May you live in interesting times.” Despite its unclear origins I often ponder the wisdom of this purportedly ancient Chinese curse. Every generation makes claims to being “the most interesting” historical time to be living in. They may all very well be right. Technology by its nature massively impacts us in countless facets of our daily lives. And the rate of technological change continues to grow exponentially.
That can be uncomfortable or even frightening for people who don’t thrive on the unpredictable dangers inherent in change. But it can also be an incredible opportunity for those who embrace it.
Now is an excellent opportunity to evaluate where your firm really is on the Rogers Bell Curve for Technology Adoption, and more importantly, where do you want to be?
We work with firms in every category of the technology adoption lifecycle. There are good, solid strategies to build a profitable business no matter where you are on the curve. But every day there is a growing risk for the laggards, and more profit opportunities for bold firms who are willing to embrace change and transform their business.
Regardless of where you want to be, here are some tips that can help you prepare for the many disruptive technologies headed our way.
Understanding is critical. You don’t need to be an expert on each of the disruptive technologies, but you should start cultivating a collection of voices that you trust. Let them do the heavy lifting and put together the basics. Your job is going to be to assimilate the information and start forming your own opinions.
Read everything you can on the subject. Mainstream press, professional publications, technology webpages, blogs, and independently published articles are all great sources of information.
Attend conferences and webinars. Start with the introductory offerings that build a foundation. The hot topics can be found at many conferences, and vendors and professional associations offer webinars. The AICPA’s Engage is an excellent conference that can jump-start your understanding of a technical subject while making the subject matter approachable and understandable.
Workshops and in-depth seminars. While there usually aren’t as many of these opportunities available early on, vendors, companies and thought leaders will step in to provide more in-depth insights and applications of the disruptive technologies that are impacting the profession and can provide guidance on preparing your firm for it. Our newly launched Accounting Innovation Center is one of the first examples of a day-long, immersive educational experience.
Develop internal champions. Find people who are passionate about the subject and invest in them. Give them time to learn. Send them to the training opportunities. Make sure they report back and share what they’ve learned with your leadership team. Challenge them. Push them. And most importantly, listen to them. They will be the river pilots who you will trust to steer the ship and help you navigate the upcoming rapids.
Have a Plan
“The Only thing that is Constant is Change” – Heraclitus
The question shouldn’t be if you’ll be disrupted by technology, but how, when and what you’re going to do about it. The accounting profession won’t go away. But it will be different than it looks today. Here are some of the thing you’ll need to consider:
Build alignment. It is critical to get everyone in the firm ready to move in the same direction. If people are confused as to vision and direction, they are not going to want to buy in to the changes that need to be made. It often takes one strong leader to not only build the vision for the future but to share and get buy-in to the vision. Many people won’t believe that the disruptions are real or that they will feel the impact. They may never like it, but they are going to have to accept it if you want your firm to succeed. Getting everyone marching in the same direction is the first step towards moving your plan forward. Bringing in an outside facilitator to help with strategic planning, envisioning or business transformation is a sound approach and can add some much-needed perspective to what can be a tricky, emotionally and politically divisive discussion about the direction the firm needs to go.
Build your niche. Technology will first impact and automate the areas that are routine. Protect your firm by focusing on specialized areas that require in-depth subject matter knowledge. It will be many years before technology will even begin to replace the specialized business acumen and expertise that comes from supporting specific niche areas. Focus on the clients that want to grow and build something meaningful and who look for your firm to provide them with a competitive advantage.
Focus on relationships. The deep connections you build with your clients, the ones built on a sense of mutual trust and partnership will become even more important as technology advances. Machines can be trained and can learn many types of predefined, automated tasks, but relationships are much like art - they are unique and require skills that computers cannot be trained to perform.
Invest in the right talent. You will still need amazing talent – in fact, more than ever! More firms will be investing in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors. Your best talent, the talent you can’t live without, soon might not be a CPA. You’re going to want to consider how you develop, invest in and make them a long-term partner in your firm.
Add insight. It’s not enough to review the books and give an opinion on what happened. Your customers want to know what’s going to happen and how they can affect it and capitalize on it. The view has shifted from the rear-view mirror to looking ahead and predicting what will happen based on numbers, talent and experience. If you aren’t driving your customers forward, they will easily replace your services with either a machine that accounts for their compliance needs, or for a consultative firm that truly partners with them and helps them grow and thrive. Accounting firms are uniquely positioned to fill this role based on the years of experience and data that they have accumulated. But if you can’t access your data or don’t know how to interpret what you have, you will be in a very dangerous position.
Move it up the line. This isn’t the first time that technology has disrupted the accounting profession. Excel replaced the green sheets. Email replaced faxes which replaced shoeboxes full of documents. Digital documents, client portals and workflows have been a boon for everyone. But the type of work being done has changed every time. Technological change has pushed the level of work being done further up the line and reduced the entry-level workloads. This shouldn’t be seen as a problem. It lets us refine the leverage model and make sure that people are working on the highest level work that they can be successful at and give technology as much as it can handle.
Embrace it! Augmentation is a term you should get very familiar with. In essence, it entails accepting the technology changes and leveraging them as much as possible to give your firm as much advantage in the market as possible. If you fight it, you’ll fall behind and put at risk the very things you are trying to protect. As we’ve discussed above, disruptive technologies aren’t going to eliminate jobs in the firms that embrace it; it will change them. The greatest risk in this era of technological innovation is to the people and firms who resist the change. Your clients will also take note of how your firm adapts to the technological changes, and when it comes time for them to seek guidance on adjusting their own businesses, what type of firm do you think they will want to take advice from? The one that resisted change? Or the one that embraced it?
The final, and arguably most imperative thing your firm needs to realize that the people you work with, at every level, are hearing the same scary things about the future of the accounting profession. If you don’t take the time to assure them that the firm understands the changes that are coming and that it has a plan, they will most assuredly start to look for a firm that develops and communicates its plan for the future. Communicating about the future also has the added benefit of including more people and ideas and allowing the talent you’ve invested in to help shape and prepare your firm to be future-ready.
Disruptive technologies are coming. Change is coming with them. But if you begin to act now, your firm can control of how they will positively impact the business, what opportunities they will create for you in the marketplace and when you can best take advantage of the technological innovations inherent from “living in interesting times.”
Marc Staut, Principal & Consultant at Boomer Consulting, Inc., helps meet the growing needs of CPA firms by leveraging his experience to provide strategic technology assessments, planning, visioning and coaching. He feels that “technology should be an enabler – something that’s approachable, aligned with and integral to the success of each firm.”
Marc is a regular speaker, author and panelist on technology in the accounting profession, cloud computing, mobile technology, leadership and vision.