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What are the top two challenges facing accountants?

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Insights from the Girard School of Business: Many challenges face accountants in the future but none top the issues of integrating innovative technology into the profession and keeping up with the rapid pace of change.

Those are the findings of a recent survey conducted by Accounting Today. The trade magazine sought informed opinions on the biggest challenges facing accountants by talking with accounting firm leaders, accounting association heads, regulators, consultants “and other thought leaders” in the field. It’s of particular interest to those who plan to earn their Master of Science in Accounting. They will enter a profession that is changing rapidly. 

Technology and Accounting

Accounting Today reported that there are other challenges facing accountants and accounting firms, including staffing, tax reform, cybersecurity, “merger mania” and the demand for more Certified Public Accountants. But they argue these issues “pale in comparison” to the issues of innovative technology and the ability to adapt to rapid change.

Integrating innovative technology is a challenge for every industry. Advances in areas such as data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, and cloud computing offer great opportunities to improve efficiency and effectiveness – if they are used properly. Scott Showalter, chair of the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board, told Accounting Today that “whether audit, accounting, tax or advisory, all will be affected by these innovations.”

Even smaller companies understand the importance of those changes. Half of the small to medium companies that do not yet use automated accounting software plan to do so in the next two years, according to a recent survey of 700 small and mid-sized U.S. companies.

Adapting to the Change

One of the most significant results of innovative technology is that it has removed accountants from having to handle routine, task-oriented jobs. This also presents one of the biggest challenges for accountants. For many clients, the role of the accountant has increasingly shifted into a business advisor role. This is true both for large companies and smaller firms. Accountants now are expected to develop relationships and become trusted business partners. The “develop relationships” part is the reason why accountants need to learn soft skills (sometimes called “people skills”) that are associated with good leadership. This helps accountants take a stronger role in developing business strategy.

Challenges with Technology

Many who talked with Accounting Today focused on the need for expanding accounting skill sets to better work with technology. “Our very existence depends on our ability to learn the skills that will let us work side-by-side with the machines and do the things they cannot yet do,” said Maryland Association of CPAs chief communications officer Bill Sheridan.

Some worried that the pace of change will leave some accountants, especially those working for smaller firms, behind the curve when it comes to implementing innovative technology. But others, such as CPA Trendlines CEO Rick Telberg, warned of an over-reliance on technology. He stressed the need for accountants to use technology to reduce costs, but also work on their own skillset to “serve clients with broader and deeper services.” He added that accountants should leverage technology “to get better at doing what clients want most — providing proactive insight, analysis, and guidance.”

Technology, while presenting both opportunities and challenges to accountants, cannot replace skilled and knowledgeable professionals. It’s another tool that can help accountants with the most important challenge they face – becoming more client-centric.