This article first appeared in ICAS’ CA magazine.
Daniel Clark, Head of Technology Professional Development at BPP, tells Anna Melville-James how CAs can reboot their skills for the digital era
From big data to cloud computing, the evolution of accountancy and technology are interwoven. Technical and ethical skills remain at the core of the CA’s role, but are supported by digital skills that are increasingly essential to a career in finance.
Firms today are ever-more conscious of attracting tech-savvy people. But recent ICAS research into the risks and opportunities of technology in the profession showed two of the most common concerns were lack of basic knowledge across business and the difficulty of keeping up with the relentless pace of change.
Finance professionals need to pivot their work towards greater digital adoption to reach their potential and support their clients effectively. Key to this is broadening their knowledge base to understand how technology and data create value for organisations.
Daniel Clark, Head of Technology Professional Development at the BPP School of Technology, is the architect of the broad spectrum of training courses ICAS offers for CAs seeking to upskill. Few areas, he notes, have such a need for CPD as the fast-paced, transformative facilities of the digital age.
“I trained as an auditor in the 1990s. Even then, I was an Analytics Champion looking at data analysis tools and how we could use them to do more effective audits. In recent years, the idea has really become widespread with more mass adoption,” says Clark.
“Part of the impact of technology is in making the workflow more efficient because you can have real-time collaboration online, electronic sign-off and so on. We can also expect to see a lot of the processes around extracting data for an audit being automated soon, and a move away from looking at accounts once or twice a year in favour of something much more continuous.
“In terms of skills though, there are two key themes – one is always being willing to learn new systems and processes. The other is around the things machines can’t do. In accountancy, if AI can sort through data, pick out anomalies and do the charting, there’ll be no need for accountants to do that. What they will need to do though is show judgement, exercise critical thinking and manage relationships.”
The digital revolution is an evolving situation. So, how should finance professionals approach technology training?
“There’s a lot of talk about digital skills but action is lagging behind,” says Clark. “Our evidence about the workforce in general is that the proportion of people getting training and digital skills through their employer is quite low. There is a disconnect between the acknowledgement that this is vital for future success and what’s actually happening.”
He notes the lag may be partly down to a lack of confidence, both from businesses analysing what they need and individuals perceiving themselves as not being tech-savvy. But starting where the need is most obvious leads to greater confidence in other areas.
“One approach is to do something short, cheap and low risk, such as Excel – if you can upskill your team’s Excel use, and think, ‘How can I carry out more effective data analysis and what value does it add?’, that can boost employee confidence. That can then lead them to ask, ‘What else can I do?’ It moves everyone along.
“The key to success is a mindset that says: I am not scared of this, I’m going to find out what I need to do and make sure I maintain my skills rather than try to avoid it.”
BPP’s courses for ICAS members are pivotal in futureproofing CAs and, by extension, their businesses, combining practical skills-based knowledge with a powerful perspective shift that can take careers up a notch. In addition, combining online with face-to-face training, they are also eminently convenient for busy CAs.
“Our courses’ role is to help you think differently and use tools more effectively,” says Clark. “But there’s also a confidence aspect to being the sort of person who’s good with technology and picks up the possibilities of a new tool or approach.
“If I were running an accounting firm now, I’d be looking for those people who are embracing what’s coming rather than those resisting it. Because technology is not going to become any less important in how accountants do their job as time goes on.”
Importantly, CPD in technology is a key skill at all ages and stages. “Positioning yourself as the person who learns new skills is important,” says Clark. “That’s as true for people at the beginning of their career as for those with a lot of experience.
“I sometimes get the impression with many senior people, there’s a feeling that the young will save us. But there’s a lot of evidence that this idea that young people somehow ‘get’ technology in a way that others don’t is a myth. They need training as much as anyone, and older people shouldn’t absolve themselves in that way, because I think they have a responsibility to go down this path. There’s nothing to stop anyone from taking this journey.”