Technology is changing the way accountants work

Traditionally, accounting courses focused on giving students the knowledge to provide accounting services – e.g. money management, financial recording, reporting, tax and auditing. While the need to know the theory and practice of accounting hasn’t changed, the world in which they work has. Accountants are now much more than number crunchers. Technology has taken the hard work out of manual accounting, and changed the profession into a much more dynamic industry that is rapidly evolving into an essential part of cross-functional business teams.

Employers are increasingly recognising the need for graduates to understand new and emerging technologies, including block chain, XBRL, robotics, cloud computing, data analytics and cyber security.

So – are universities doing enough to prepare the next generation of accountants for the changing role and expectations, and what exactly do they need to know to succeed?

Change needs to start from the top

Who’s driving the change? Professor Jacqueline Birt, Head of Accounting and Finance at the University of Western Australia says change is coming from both industry bodies and employers. She’s seen a trend of employers actively recruiting for candidates that have strong accounting and finance skills and/or skills in areas of IT, engineering, and data sciences. This trend is also recognised by the industry bodies, who recognise both the challenges and opportunities that technology presents for accountants.

Jac Birt

Professor Jacqueline Birt
Head of Accounting and Finance at the University of Western Australia

One of the biggest changes that technology has brought to the profession is a shift in the expected skills and knowledge for early career accountants. Where usual tasks would once have consisted of repetitive manual tasks, these have now been replaced by automations and data synchronisation. Not only is this more cost effective for employers, but it frees up resources to focus on higher level duties and be more engaged in wider business functions. Moving into these cross-functional roles creates a demand for graduates that are adaptable and flexible learners who can quickly develop their skills in business management, organisational development, communication, and innovation.

Clients need support, strategy and skills

Digital transformation doesn’t stop with employers – tech savvy clients are increasingly expecting more from their accountants. Client facing graduates most likely won’t get handed a showbox of receipts but might have many clients who are confidently self-trained in accounting, thanks to digital accounting software. Accountants will need to educate those clients on using the tools correctly and ensuring that information is accurate. Having the data entry automated opens opportunities to move into more strategic conversations around business planning and finances.

Integration and innovation not addition when it comes to course content

Rather than adding courses focused on technology on top of an already overcrowded curriculum, Professor Birt believes that the answer is better integration and innovation of the existing courses.

Knowing the theory of accounting principles and concepts remains essential for accountants, but Excel and accounting software have taken over from memorising formulas and being able to perform complex equations.  The more important skills are now being able to use the software correctly and being able to correctly analyse and interpret the data.

By thinking outside the box when it comes to assessments, instructors can ask students to get experience using the software and programs they need to master by learning online and completing set exercises.

Although traditional exams aren’t going anywhere soon, integrating technology into assessments might see students researching real-world problems, such as the relevance of block chains, evaluating the financial and tax implications of cryptocurrencies, or assessing the financial impacts of cyber threats.

The actual software programs that students learn in their studies is not actually that important, because they will change as they go through their careers.  The most important thing, says Professor Birt, is that students are financially literate, and they have the technical and technological skills to understand new programs, software and technological innovations, and approach technology with a willingness to learn.

Accounting skills

This attitude of creating adaptable learners – not just knowledgeable graduates – is echoed by industry bodies, such as the Chartered Accountants of ANZ.  In their recent update to the Capability Model for the accounting profession, they highlight the need for accountants of the future to be “flexible, innovative, adaptable and responsive.” (CAANZ)