COVID-19 hasn’t just ravaged lives, but livelihoods, leaving uncertainty and unpredictability in its wake.

Yet even as this pandemic brought lives and communities to a standstill, it has also served as a wake-up call. Across a vastly changed world, individuals, organisations and entire sectors are re-evaluating their future prospects, relevance and purpose.

The accountancy profession is no exception. This is the time for accountants to step up and leverage on their financial expertise and skillsets to guide organisations of all shapes and sizes from volatility to business continuity and stability.

Even in times of crisis, accountancy leaders remain steadfast in the principles that they espouse to manage change and ensure future fitness. In late 2019, before the pandemic emerged as Public Enemy No. 1 in the first quarter of 2020,  Andrew Conway, Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Public Accountants, Australia and member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) Professional Accountancy Organization Development Committee spoke to MIA Deputy Executive Director Rasmimi Ramli on preparing the profession for the future. Then, as now, his advice is valid and sound.

In brief, Conway urged the profession to reframe risks as opportunities, claim the technology space, and articulate the social value and purpose of accountancy to attract and retain young talent who will spearhead future growth.

Below are highlights from their conversation:

Current and Future Challenges faced by the Accountancy Profession

The accountancy profession faces many challenges, but it is vital to subdue our fears and spin these into opportunities that can inspire hope and intelligent action. Conway singled out trust, technology and purpose as the drivers of value that can help the profession to remain on trend and in demand.

One, as the profession is predicated on trust and protecting the public interest, it is critical to surmount the global trust deficit affecting institutions and the profession in order to be relevant, authentic and in touch with public sentiment.

Two, leverage on technology disruption by embracing the benefits of technology and managing the associated threats, or risk obsolescing in a digital world.

Three, ponder and communicate the purpose and social value of the profession, or suffer reputational and trust risks among skeptical and wary stakeholders as well as the erosion of the talent pipeline.

Building Trust, Becoming Future Ready

It is important for accountants and the profession to strategise how to take on these challenges with wisdom and empathy, while always remaining mindful of the barriers of inertia and fear.

Trust. With regards to building trust, Conway referenced his experience in the Australian government. Educating stakeholders on the critical role of the profession and reinforcing strong and effective relationships with key government stakeholders, from heads of government down, are critical in preserving trust.

“How we actually address the notion of the role that our profession plays in boosting public financial management accountability and transparency is key to ensure that we maintain a position of trust. In Australia, accountants are the most trusted finance professionals in the country, and this doesn’t happen by accident but over many years of experience. However, trust can be lost in an instant,” he warned.

Technology. Being trend-conscious and engaged are vital to leveraging on technology disruption. “Through hundreds of years of perfecting our profession, accountants have proven that we can evolve. Now, the profession needs to adapt and respond in the current evolutionary cycle of the technological revolution,” said Conway.

Conway urged accountants to seize the technological space by hybridising skillsets. “We can turn our role as trusted business advisors into being trusted technology and data advisors. This is a gap in our market, and accountants have a role to play in addressing that gap.”

Hybridising and hyphenating skills and roles will help dispel fears that accountants and the profession will be made redundant by increasing job automation. Conway also reminded accountants that professionals endowed with natural and emotional intelligence have an advantage over machines.

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is good, but it gets beaten by emotional intelligence (EI). AI will help get and crunch the data much faster, but ultimately the client wants to engage with human professionals to benefit from the human interface.”

“We need to encourage students to understand the human interface and to understand that their ability to communicate will be one of their strongest assets,” stressed Conway.

Attracting Young Talent

To be human is to question your purpose, and people of all ages are increasingly asking this fundamental question. Finding your why is a critical aspect to long-term career satisfaction and personal fulfilment, said Conway. “To the young accountants and people wanting to advance their careers, my advice is to have a very strong focus on why you’re doing what you’re doing. Ask yourself: what is the ultimate social purpose of the work that you’re doing?”

Conway said that defining the social value of the accountancy profession is essential to recruiting and retaining young talent. “Statistics from the World Economic Forum suggest that young people want to know that their work has social value. We have to help draw the connection between their motivations and the opportunities in accountancy. If we start speaking about our social value as accountants, then I think we’ll be in a much better position to attract and retain talent.”

Young people can be fervent activists for sustainability. To draw talent, the profession can strengthen its connection to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which is the template for balanced development towards economic, social and environmental wellbeing. However, the profession which is skewed to financial profit needs to be recalibrated in terms of education and work – to embed the SDGs and lay the foundations for a sustainable tomorrow.

In a real-world example, accountants already play an important role in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of small business owners in Australia. “They see how their profession helps boost the quality of life. It’s about having a true connection and not just about numbers, or technology, or our systems and processes. Ultimately, our profession is about people, and the social impact our work has. We have to ask ourselves: what we can do as a profession to boost transparency and the capacity of financial systems to ultimately help eradicate poverty?”

Andrew Conway, Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Public Accountants, Australia and member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) Professional Accountancy Organization Development Committee was speaking to MIA Deputy Executive Director Rasmimi Ramli at the IFAC Conference on Developing Accountancy Capacity in Emerging Economies co-hosted by MIA.

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