Technology continues to initiate change in the role of accountants from number-crunchers to strategic advisors. With client requirements in flux, and with regulations becoming more complex, accountants have an opportunity to wield automation technologies that can free up time for more strategic initiatives.
In the last few months alone, accounting standard-setters in both the U.S. and on the international stage have introduced sweeping adjustments, reflecting the growing importance for accounting and auditing firms to remain agile and promote compliance. At the same time, higher-level industry overhauls are changing the very definition of an accountant, as well as the nature of that professional with clients.
Lyle Ball, CEO of Avii, a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider to the accounting industry, told PYMNTS in a recent interview that the conversation about the shifting role of accountants cannot occur without addressing what has become both a major hurdle and opportunity for these businesses: Big Data.
Businesses that have embraced SaaS have recently found themselves struggling to ensure that all their disparate, siloed systems and platforms are able to communicate with each other and share data, Ball explained. The accounting sector is not immune to this challenge, and, indeed, can often face an even larger hurdle than other sectors in addressing it.
Accounting is a "conservative" industry, he said, and can be reluctant to change.
"Many accountants use Excel spreadsheets for everything, because they're comfortable with it," he said. "They use it for CRM, project planning, budgeting, workflow, task assignments — and all of these are disparate, disconnected spreadsheets."
However, those rising demands in compliance and client advisory services mean that spreadsheets and data silos no longer cut it. Not only must accounting firms' back-office SaaS platforms integrate with each other, but these businesses are operating at a time when unifying all that information in a single place is critical to maintaining the agility, security and efficiencies needed to meet market demands.
AI Readies Firms For More Change Ahead
Gradually, accounting firms are digitizing their data via SaaS adoption, and eventually achieving cross-platform integration. As this occurs, Ball said there is greater opportunity for technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to step in and support their need to serve in advisory roles to clients.
"I don't believe AI is replacing accountants at all," he said, noting that AI frees up professionals from the traditional number-crunching and data entry work of the past, and empowers these professionals to elevate their services.
This is critical in an age where accounting standards and regulation requirements continue to change, forcing firms to remain agile and responsive. It will continue to be important, too, as data integration demands become more complex. Ball pointed to data security, for example, which can also be key for compliance reasons.
"The more that obfuscated, non-personal Big Data is known, the more macro changes can take place," he said. "The more that secure exchange of personal data is contained into single databases, the more security can increase."
Not only can the process of data integration and unifying systems support security, but it can mitigate the pain of changing operational behavior.
"There is a benefit of both the actual data being unified and the amalgamation of the behaviors being unified," Ball continued, "so firms and markets, and individuals, can change their behavior to evolve into a more secure and productive space."
That evolution will only continue to accelerate. Emerging trends include the opportunity for accounting and auditing firms to not only integrate their own back-office platforms, but integrate directly with their clients' data, introducing a host of technological, security and compliance challenges that technology will need to address.
Broad-level industry shifts continue to disrupt the profession as well, particularly as market players, analysts and regulators begin to challenge the traditional roles of the auditor and accountant. The debate over whether an auditor is responsible for detecting potential instances of fraud within their clients' operations, for example, is a conversation only just beginning to bubble.
With an industry in so much flux as accounting, data is a powerful tool to enable service providers to keep abreast of an inevitable future of change, while meeting the requirement of an elevated level of service.
"You don't just want your tax preparer to look at your pay stubs," said Ball. "You also want them to analyze that information compared to industry norms and standards, and to consider new tax laws coming out, and new standards. It's not only about how to comply today, but understanding what's changing in the next year, or five years. It's about asking what do we know, and what do we need to do? How can we give a data-level analysis, and not just a gut check?"