How accountants can stay on top of the digital wave

Accountants need to stay ahead of technology to anticipate client needs, says Jennifer Warawa

As technology continues to develop, today’s accounting firms are quickly discovering that key tasks such as matching purchase orders and flagging invoices for payment can be expedited by leveraging the likes of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). As highlighted in research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), collecting and processing data can be achieved better and faster by machines, and they will only keep improving. This enables AI tools to carry out many time-consuming, manual processes. In turn, this frees up firms to maximise the time spent on delivering informed, trusted advice to clients.

Being operationally prepared to transition to a modern way of working is therefore essential to staying competitive in the long term. With that in mind, here are three key steps accountancy practices can take to make sure they are prepared for technological transformation.

Identify where different technologies fit in

With so many innovations to choose from, building an understanding of the role of different technologies and which processes they can help improve is vital. This starts by paying attention to how clients engage with new technologies. For example, in the future, a greater number of clients may start considering initial coin offerings (ICOs) – the cryptocurrency world’s rough equivalent to an initial public offering (IPO) – as a potential method for raising funding. If a firm recognises this trend, it will have to understand the technology enough to be able to offer suitable guidance, or risk losing out to firms which do.

Firms must also acknowledge that the next generation of accountants are digitally savvy and place significant value on technology in the workplace. Becoming cloud-enabled, automating processes and using mobile technologies to support flexible working are now necessities, requiring a focus on investing in the right solutions to help employees work smarter and more efficiently. This may include deploying solutions that provide constant access to live client data, or equipping accountants with powerful reporting tools.

By investing time and resources in understanding the technology landscape, accounting firms will stay ahead of continued industry change and better meet the needs of forward-looking employees and clients.

Address business goals

When it comes to digital transformation, a “one-size-fits-all” approach simply does not exist. Firms have to address technological gaps specific to their organisation in order for long and short-term goals to be achieved. Focusing on individual business goals, such as giving staff and clients 24-hour secure access to data, or building new revenue streams, will provide structure to digital transformation strategies and help firms focus attention on the right solutions.

Once the appropriate transformation strategy has been determined, firms should evaluate the skills gap across their organisation and respond. This may involve running training programs and providing support for accountants learning how to use the new tools. By ensuring that employees are well-equipped to operate the right technologies, accounting firms will be in the position to leverage the modern tools needed to hit their specific company goals.

Stay ahead of the curve

It is essential that firms adopt a future-gazing approach and stay one step ahead. For example, evaluating how future technological developments may impact current ways of working will be key. In fact, firms should encourage their entire workforce to stay informed on industry trends and any new technologies that will help them transition to smarter, more efficient ways of working.

Even more important to remaining competitive in the years to come will be evaluating how future innovations could be used to stay ahead of client demands. Anticipating future client needs and improving the way clients are serviced will be vital. Whatever route they take, leading the profession in the technologically-driven world of the future will ultimately come down to the ability of accounting firms to remain focused on digital innovation and be operationally prepared to respond to continued disruption.

Jennifer Warawa is executive vice president of partners, accountants and alliances at Sage