The shifting role of accountants and the future of accountancy

Nowadays, many of us can open a mobile app or browser and complete certain aspects of our work online. We might schedule a call, respond to an inquiry, or snap a picture of our latest work-related expense. Digitalisation trends such as faster internet (4G or even 5G), artificial intelligence, and optical character recognition (OCR) are allowing us to complete work faster and more accurately.

Take a look at your own office. You may have recently adopted online communication tools such as video calls and messaging apps to facilitate communication. Other businesses have turned to smart software to track their supply chain—from resource procurement to production, all the way to final last-mile delivery. And you may have seen news articles about the growing use of AI-based chatbots in customer service and HR.  

Still, all this tech talk has some people wondering: Where will humans fit in in the workplace of the future? As accountants—people who have normally been portrayed by pop culture as walking, talking computers—we’ve pondered this ourselves. Might computers one day be so smart that they leave us jobless?

Here’s what we think: the rise of new tech is actually going to unlock awesome new opportunities for accountants. Computers have already surpassed humans in pattern recognition, fast arithmetic, and data management—but we’ve got them beat when it comes to innovation and creativity.

At Harvest Accounting, we like to think of ourselves as accountants of the future—financial advisors who help our clients spot business opportunities, creatively save costs, and manage money efficiently. In order to succeed in a changing era, we believe that all accountants must hone their softer skills, creatively use technology to deliver optimal results, and take a more active role in their relationships with clients. 

Tech has helped the accounting industry become semi-automated

The general public may not be completely aware of how complicated and intense an accountant’s job scope is. When people think of accountants, they often recall stereotypes: the boring math nerd, the awkward bookworm. And indeed, much of the work us accountants did in the past revolved around data entry and administrative busywork.

However, finance management and accounting are actually highly complex, and even seasoned experts can find it tough to keep up.

For example—business owners have to pay attention to the accounts payable cycle to ensure that they aren’t accumulating more debt than they can afford. A few years ago this would  involve a lot of data entry, from reviewing bills to encoding invoice information in a ledger or a software app. 

Entering all the invoices and details each month  could easily translate to hours and hours of backache-inducing work punching numbers into a keyboard. Furthermore, a single mistake in the due date, amount of the transaction, or missing an invoice completely could incur penalties or late fees. 

Fortunately, it’s that mundane repetition that makes accounting processes ripe for automation.

We automate our clients’ accounts payable processes through a pre-accounting tool called Receipt Bank. Client employees simply upload all of their invoices to Receipt Bank, then we perform a batch payment run that lets us process all of the invoices in minutes, without having to enter any information manually (in either the accounting software or the bank portal). All of the information is accurate and synchronised, and we can then review the data to ensure there are no mistakes or anomalies.

Tech can also help us update clients and customers about any changes to their account; and AI features built inside these applications help extract quantitative data that we can analyse to help you make better business decisions. These help us spot patterns that even our trained human eyes might sometimes miss.

Here are other tasks and processes that we’ve learned to entrust to machines to assist us:

  • Bank reconciliation
  • Expense management
  • Reimbursements
  • Accounts receivable reminders
  • Customer workflow and query management

A bulk of accounting is now done on the cloud—which is great for SMEs. Cloud accounting enables access to real-time data at any time of the day, and it reduces overhead costs for things like data storage, expensive computer equipment, and the team of dedicated IT pros tasked with managing the entire system. 

Modern accountants must play a strategic, client-facing role

Now that the grunt work is handled by machines, accountants have been tasked with redefining their job scope. Think of the organisation as a large ship, setting sail in murky, shark-infested waters. Every ship is prone to leaks and other catastrophes—and each captain needs a solid crew to ensure that they arrive at their destination safely.

The accountant of the past may have spent most of their time below deck, rarely seen or heard from by other passengers. But the modern accountant’s relationship with the rest of the crew is completely different. Now, they are coming into their own as trustworthy (financial) navigators at the helm. When given trust, they can chart a course through ever-changing financial regulations, address heightening costs, and quell disagreements within the crew.

Accountants are key-decision-makers not only when it comes to finance, but to overall business strategy, too. After all, if you’re planning on launching a new product or entering a new market, one of the first questions on your mind is: can we afford to take this next step? Your accountant can help you manage operational costs so that when you do make your move, it won’t bring you into the red. 

With all this time spent on deck, accountants are finally beginning to establish themselves as warm, supportive, and human members of the organisation. With much of the heavy lifting done by machines, the focus is now on strong innovation and creativity that machines lack, and their versatility and adaptability are only going to be ever more crucial in a post-Covid-19 environment. Nowadays, everyone is using similar tech-based tools in all sorts of business processes: ingenuity and creativity are what sets the successful ship apart from the sunken one.

Another key trait of the successful accountant-as-navigator is tech-savviness. We need to keep up to date with the latest trends and developments in tech so that we can develop better navigational courses. 

When it comes to internal workflows, we do this by actively assessing Xero apps to see where processes could be made more efficient. Xero has countless integrations with top-notch small business software. Whether you’re  real estate investor or a doctor’s clinic or a chain of restaurants, cloud-based tools can help you run your business without the hassle or headache.

If you’re a product manufacturer, for example, you have access to apps like Unleashed, which provides business intelligence dashboards to help you monitor product margins, supplier performance, purchasing and sales data, and more. Timely, on the other hand, helps service providers craft the ideal client experience with online bookings, deposits, and payments. 

The average business uses 137 third-party services and tools, all of which generate their own data and incur their own costs. No need to worry: the right team of accountants may be able to integrate some of these apps directly to the accounting system to minimise duplicate data entry.

One thing is clear: accountants of the future must have creative analytical minds that can solve unique financial business challenges. It’s the depth of the insights that accountants generate that will help them stand out from the crowd.

It’s time to implement a digital-first approach to accounting

By approaching your finances from a digital-first perspective, you’ll be able to save time and prevent tedious chores like data entry from eating up into your busy day. According to 2020 research from Xero, accounting practices that made effective use of technology were able to lower their time costs by 240 hours per client per year.

Since accounting is becoming a more tech-based industry, you’ll need to invest in accountants with strong technical know-how. At the very least, they should be comfortable keeping up with the latest developments in accounting software—the global business accounting software market could grow by US$1.64 billion between 2020 and 2024.

That’s not all: since the computers will be doing much of the number-crunching from here on out, accountants will spend more of their time analysing the data, then sharing their findings with clients—that’s a lot of customer relations. Great accountants will therefore need great written and verbal communication skills.

Because the accounting landscape changes so frequently, more accountants are trying to build a great relationship with their clients, creating value and providing helpful support. It’s all about service and authentic connection: whereas traditional accounting firms might only check in once a year, Harvest Accounting prefers to provide monthly reporting to our clients in order to provide valuable up to date information that can be used for important decision making. .

How accountants can succeed in a post-Covid-19 environment

The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) shares that professional accountants who want to differentiate themselves in a post-Covid-19 world need to quickly adapt to emerging technologies. Thriving in the accounting industry requires skills in strategic thinking, innovation, sustainability agendas, and driving digitalisation. 

ACCA goes on to share that there are five main roles or “career zones” where accountants can build their competencies.

The assurance advocate supports their clients in developing compliant organisations. They focus on establishing trust and integrity within operations, and can help clients stay on top of Annual Financial Statements, ECI, Form C / C-S, and other reporting requirements.

The business transformer drives organisational change. They take a strong advisory role and help their clients develop sustainable growth strategies.

The data navigator doubles down on emerging analytical tools to drive deeper business insights. They’re strong analysts with powerful foresight and an array of rich data sets which they use to deliver better outcomes. They can help you understand and visualise business numbers and are pros at spotting trends.

The digital playmaker is passionate about new technology and its role in transforming organisations, making them smoother and more efficient from the inside-out. If you’re struggling with digital adoption, they can help you troubleshoot.

The sustainability trailblazer is key in developing frameworks that help the organisation grow sustainably. They’ll target business activities that drive value, cut down on those which aren’t fit for the long term, and champion transparency to stakeholders and external parties. 

Accountancy is an exciting, challenging field, and as accounting leaders we pride ourselves on delivering superior client experiences. We succeed because of their deep accounting knowledge and versatility in handling complex, variative business cases—as well as their reliability. They respond quickly to clients with sound advice, reflecting their belief that finance is urgent.

Accountants no longer communicate with clients solely through e-mail, letter, or in-person meetings. Singaporean businesses are increasingly turning to video conferencing, webinars, and automated reminders to communicate with their partners, teams, and clients—and the most successful accountants are able to take this change in stride and accommodate. 

The future of accountancy lines up with the future of business in general—it’ll be more agile, flexible, and tech-based. Xero’s Accounting & Bookkeeping Industry Report shows that pacesetter practices—the most successful firms, and those responsible for reshaping their industry—grew their business by prioritising their staff and clients.

Pacesetter firms are also “much more assertive in making recommendations to clients and far less likely to simply accept the client’s preference as a final decision”. This reflects the growing role of the accountant within organisations as a strategic advisor with the right to contribute their own perspective. 

Building partnerships and strengthening collaboration

As a business, you might be wondering where the best place is to get yourself a great accountant. The search can be tough if you’re trying to build an in-house team: according to one global LinkedIn survey, it can take up to four months to fill a single position. Then, you’ve got to factor in the hours it takes to develop your own internal Standard Operating Procedures and financial best practices. Lastly, you still have to invest in training.

Outsourcing can be a good option for businesses who don’t have the time, energy, or need to build an in-house finance team yet. It’s cost-effective and gives you access to accounting experts who are already familiar with the business accounting cycle. Chances are, they’ll also be pros at managing accounting software. You receive all of the experience and benefits of a full-fledged team, without the effort of hiring and onboarding a team from the ground up.

Still, outsourcing comes with its own challenges. The process of seeking out the right partner can take a lot of trial-and-error and “first dates”. You may sign a contract with one vendor only to realise that they can’t offer you what you truly need. Or, you might not click on a personal level—making the working relationship awkward and disappointing.

As a business owner, it is your prerogative to seek business partners who will bring something new, helpful, and interesting to the table. Be selective, and make full use of the services that your chosen accountants provide. Ask questions, and don’t be afraid to ask for what you need—the right agency will be able to assuage your concerns and provide real support.

Once you decide to commit, establish consistent, regular communication with accountants and other members of your team: higher levels of engagement don’t just lead to better relations, they also allow you to have a stronger handle on your current financial condition.

If you’re looking for a dedicated partner to help you navigate the tough world of modern accounting, why not give Harvest Accounting a try? We can help you digitalise your processes and work together with you to create a sound, robust financial system that just works.

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