Charles Darwin would have made a brilliant accountant. It’s not just his forensic brain or curious nature that would have made him successful, but his understanding that it’s not the strongest or most intelligent that survives, but the most adaptable.
Look at the world and think back five years. Rapid developments in technology and regulation, the growth of populist politics, and an uncertain relationship with the EU mean many of the boundaries that once governed the way organisations do business are moving or disappearing altogether.
At the same time public trust in business is low. High-profile scandals have left many feeling alienated from – and frustrated with – business and other institutions. Globalisation has seen many winners but many losers too. If the vote for Brexit was the first rebellion of a developed country against globalisation, then I doubt it will be the last.
We need to sit up and take notice. If ever there was a time for a complete drains-up review of how business reacts to a changing marketplace, it must surely be now. The accountancy profession – as one of the foundation stones of a market economy – needs to be alive to change and adapt accordingly.
But I am an optimist at heart. I believe that out of change springs new and unique opportunities. And it’s time for the profession to seize them.
As I begin my first day as BDO’s new managing partner, I have been thinking about what the accountancy profession needs to do to adapt. I see four main overlapping areas.
First, the profession must fully embrace a digital mind-set. Historically, it has focused on IQ and EQ; having a digital quotient is now just as important. All firms will need to foster a careful balance of Digital, Intelligent and Emotional skills. Today this DIE Q is fundamental in accountancy.
Digital has created new markets and is challenging traditionally successful organisations. The accountancy world is no different. We must all be prepared for the new opportunities being created and the new skills being demanded by clients. The profession is at a tipping point. We need to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. Increased competition through regulatory changes and globalisation must make us press the accelerator on innovation.
Second, the profession must offer solutions and advice, not products. When you think about the complexity of individual businesses and the unique challenges they face, it’s not enough to think about an “off the shelf” service being right for everyone. Each challenge must be examined on its own terms.
Third, millennials are now in the driving seat. We are living in an age where a workplace can have five generations working together. The impact of this on behaviours, employee motivation and engagement cannot be underestimated. This multi-generational environment is also a new diversity challenge, especially when competing with tech startups and other exciting sectors. Creating a unifying culture to maintain a flowing pipeline of talent must be a focus.
Finally, accountants must be business advisers. Businesses don’t just want a “numbers person”; they rely on their advisers to challenge their thinking and want to work with independent people who have opinions and, importantly, provide insightful, joined-up solutions that help them succeed.
Consider a tax review project. As technology replaces elements of the routine parts of such a review, time is freed up to spend on other aspects. In turn, the adviser will provide a deeper and more valuable insight into risks, controls and strategic opportunities.
As the pace of change quickens, there will be opportunities and challenges ahead. The accountancy profession must adapt or it will stagnate. Relevance in the twenty-first century isn’t a given.