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Navigating uncertainty: The future of accountancy

Helen Brand
Big Data
Businesses need someone who will be able to help them make sense of an ever-changing world (Source: Getty)

The discovery that a computer error may have caused the sterling “flash crash” last week probably raised wry smiles in board-rooms around the world.

The flurry of panicked headlines caused by Theresa May implying that Britain was heading towards hard Brexit apparently tricked trading algorithms into rapid selling of the currency. A meltdown triggered by an overload of gloomy business news? It has probably been a weekly feeling for many C-suite executives in 2016.

No doubt many forecasters and futurologists may find their stock has fallen recently, both metaphorically as well as financially. Yet the increasing number of companies who are wise enough to call upon the strategic insight of professional accountants at the very senior level may find they are better equipped to navigate present uncertainties.

Anticipating the future

Earlier this year, ACCA engaged in our own exercise in futurology with the publication of our Professional Accountants – the future study. What we discovered from speaking to over 2,000 accountants and business leaders from around the world was that, while political shocks are by nature hard to predict, they are possible to anticipate. Over half of those we spoke to expected that changes in global governance and institutions would have the biggest impact on how business operates in the next decade.

In an age where protectionist rhetoric has gradually risen to the fore on both sides of the US presidential race, and where the World Trade Organization is reporting record numbers of trade restrictions against other nations, companies engaged in global trade can no longer make the same assumptions that governments will be working towards liberalising business operations.

Similarly the recent furore over Apple’s tax arrangements in Ireland, and Deutsche Bank’s own travails with the US legal system, are indications of how the challenges to business worldwide are mounting in an era of considerable political uncertainty.

360 degree understanding

It is tempting for many in business to see the term “political” and assume it is a matter for the lawyers and lobbyists. Yet our research highlights that it is increasingly accountants who are expected to demonstrate leadership, both internally and externally, to prepare firms for the commercial implications of these decisions.

This shift has been most visible in the rising significance of the chief financial officer in company decision-making. Besides the chief executive, this is generally the one position which can offer a truly 360 degree understanding of how an organisation operates and how to “futureproof” against technological disruption, market expansion and dramatic shifts to compliance standards.

Increasingly, as such challenges become part of the “new normal” of doing business in the twenty-first century, many organisations are now seeing chief financial officers move to the very top as investors and executives seek the reassurance of their forensic approach and analytical insight in a fast-changing world.

It should also perhaps not be surprising that, in a climate where the perceived excesses of boardroom culture are under such intense public scrutiny, professional accountants are increasingly prized for offering robust ethical judgement alongside their technical excellence.

Skills innovation

As the world changes, and more responsibility is placed on their shoulders, it is vital that the accountancy profession evolves to meet these challenges. Already, the feedback from our members emphasises the need for well-rounded skill-sets which can help accountants – too often unfairly derided as “bean-counters” – move seamlessly between seminars on digital transformation and funding circle presentations, with the personal skills necessary to take their colleagues with them.

That is why, this week, I was proud to speak as ACCA launched a set of major innovations to our Qualification. In a series of events around the world we unveiled a ground-breaking redesign which will equip the next generation of professional accountants with the skills their future employers have told us they need.

With these innovations, we’re setting a new standard by fully integrating deep, broad and relevant technical expertise with ethics and professional skills. Because every element has a real world focus, our students will be prepared to handle the challenges they’ll face in this volatile new world.

There is no substitute for that all-important real-world experience of work, and employers are demanding that from those entering the workforce right from the get-go. That is why we have added real-world scenarios which will set out challenges for students that require them to blend technical, professional and ethical skills in the evaluation, synthesis and presentation of their responses. Mirroring exactly the scenarios they will experience in the workplace.

Accountants are a diverse group who can range from maths graduates to those who took apprenticeship and vocational routes into the profession. What they have in common is that they are not only highly trained but also have a thorough grounding in professional practice. The innovations we have made to the ACCA Qualification mean our future members will be supported in developing vitally important ethical behaviours and technical competence, complemented by emotional intelligence, creativity, digital proficiency, experience and a clear vision for the future.

Whatever happens over the next five years, one thing is certain: accountants will be at the heart of it. And ACCA will be ensuring they are ready.

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