From fears that automation and technology will replace the need for human accountants, what has emerged instead is an understanding that technology is forcing the accounting and corporate finance professions to adjust to a new reality: technology can handle the manual number-crunching, leaving professionals to provide more valuable, strategic advisory services to their firms.
This shift has been so acute that small business cloud accounting firm Xero is even petitioning the Oxford English Dictionary to change the definition of "accountant" to one that includes the word "advise."
The common denominator between these two trends — robots replacing human accountants, and human accountants shifting into an advisory role — is technological disruption, and the professionals themselves aren't the only ones facing changes. Marc Basil, senior financial search director at recruiting firm Brilliant Financial Search, says the companies hiring these professionals have had to change the course of their strategies, too.
"What we're constantly seeing is the line between accounting-slash-finance and technology is getting blurrier and blurrier — in a really good way," Basil told PYMNTS in a recent interview, adding that chief financial officers today are increasingly focusing on how to wield technology to obtain more meaningful, actionable insights.
What this means is companies looking to hire accountants and finance professionals are reflecting an increased demand for technology-friendly talent.
That demand for human talent, by the way, hasn't decreased. In fact, Basil said that corporates' demand for staff-level accountants is the highest it has been in his career (the company, which specializes in direct-hire and contract staffing services in the accounting, finance and IT spaces, recently found that 51 percent of companies in a survey reported unfilled positions in accounting and finance, a five-year high for the report).
In one of the tightest labor markets that corporate America has seen in years, demand for financial experts remains resilient even as automation continues to rise. But what organizations are looking for in those professionals doesn't look like it did a decade or so ago.
Recruiting website Indeed.com published data in 2017 on the most in-demand professionals sought after by small business employers, with "small business accountant" notably missing from the list; rather, professions like "data analyst" and "business development manager" made the cut, demonstrating the need for more than number-crunching professionals.
"There's the old-school stereotypical idea of the accountant — which I've never agreed with — where they're in the back office, head down, crunching numbers," Basil said. "That's long gone."
In addition to seeking accountants who are tech-savvy, it's also true that organizations are demanding talent who can offer a more strategic role for the enterprise. What that encompasses, said Basil, is a professional who is not only well-versed in the numbers, but is also able to interface with other areas within and outside of the enterprise, including the sales team, strategic customers or vendors.
The Accountant's Changing Roles
From the vantage point of a hiring manager, it's clear that the accounting profession is safe from being wiped out by automated robots. But analysts warn that accountants and corporate finance professionals cannot simply go with the status quo.
"Automation, mini-bots, machine learning and adaptive intelligence are becoming part of the finance team at lightning speed," concluded analysis from Accenture, reports in Forbes said last year. Internal company audits, review of employee expense reports, supplier on-boarding, accounts receivable, accounts payable and procurement are just a few areas of corporate finance that are on-path to become entirely automated.
What that means for accounting professionals is that, not only must they be well-versed in accounting and technology, and must have the intra-personal and communication skills necessary to collaborate with others, they must augment their value as strategic advisors to their firms. Basil said that can occur in a number of ways, but one of the largest trends he sees today is the need for regulation-savvy experts.
"Typically, in larger, publicly-traded companies where there are [Securities and Exchange Commission] regulations, that just adds another layer of complexity and another layer of demand when recruiting for [corporate finance] positions," he said.
The same can be said for cybersecurity expertise, particularly as corporate finance and accounting departments become larger targets for cyberattacks like the business email compromise or data breaches. What that means for companies hiring in this position is a choice between narrowing the talent search to professionals already well-versed in these areas, or deciding to invest in training accountants and finance professionals in areas like compliance and cybersecurity post-hire.
Regardless of which route a company chooses to take, rising demand for accountants with an array of skills may mean a more complex hiring process for a company, but is good news for corporate finance professionals concerned that a robot will replace their jobs.
"Some of the technology taking place in accounting certainly will affect things," said Basil. "There will be changes. Will it do away with accounting as a profession? Absolutely not."