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Becoming the accountant of the future

Let’s face it we are boring, conservative bean counters, stuck in the back office, blocking spend and new ideas. We’re going to be doing this job until we retire, and we certainly aren’t considered entrepreneurial or out-the-box thinkers. We are all familiar with the accountant stereotype, not so?

To add insult to injury, this stereotype means we are frequently perceived as a speed bump on the journey to a future-ready organisation. An organisation that is agile and resilient enough to navigate a business environment that is simultaneously unpredictable, uncertain and chaotic, but also packed with opportunity and potential.

Let’s start with the stereotype. We all know that this is wildly inaccurate and that accountants come in all flavours, with a wide variety of specialties, approaches and traits. Further, some of the objective commonalities among accountants—reliability, accuracy, ethical behaviour, dependability—are essential to the success of any business.

When it comes to the second assertion, however, as a profession we potentially have some work to do. But this work needs to build on the core ingredients that inherently define our profession, so that we remain relevant and continue to add value as we reconsider and reposition our roles to think outside the box.

Think of it like this. It has always been the captain of a ship’s job to navigate a safe, efficient and on time passage to its destination. Depending on the route, for most of the twentieth century, dangers such as icebergs were known about and expected, even if the exact location of the iceberg could be uncertain.

Back at the start of the twentieth century, captains had limited tools to use to spot icebergs, relying on shipboard radio and visual sightings to navigate treacherous waters. Disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, as well as advances in technology, gave captains more sophisticated tools to better spot these dangers. These included dedicated monitoring, satellite imagery and radar. Indeed, latest niche technology even provides real-time information on specific locations of whales, for instance. This adds richness to the incoming data on factors such as the weather, ocean currents and wave patterns, giving the captain more information and insight than ever before on avoiding icebergs and other dangers.

At the same time, the sea has got busier—every year more cargo is transported by ship—and the sheer number of icebergs has increased due to the climate crisis. These icebergs are different to their predecessors, they are smaller, float lower in the water and are harder to see, yet can still damage a ship and disrupt its course. Now add into the mix that some captains are under increased pressure to cut costs and time, so are deliberately choosing more dangerous, iceberg-laden routes, such as the infamous Northwest Passage across the Arctic Ocean.

Sounds a bit like a metaphor for the modern business world, doesn’t it? Bringing it back to our role as accountants, just like the ship’s captain, our core strengths are as important as ever in the face of more risk, more uncertainty and more potential reward. But just like the ship’s captain, our circumstances have changed, and it is no longer business as usual. To continue adding value in a new environment, we should also be augmenting our core capabilities and experience with additional information, tapping into the power of technology and thinking outside the box.

We need to ask ourselves how we can redeploy the attributes that make us good accountants to remain relevant today. How can we do things better and faster? How can we get improved information, and then harness that information to make better decisions? I’d argue that the answer is in the core qualities of accountants being supplemented with a new mindset, capabilities and ways of working to enhance our role, and also the value we bring to our organisations. One practical way to achieve this today is to stop thinking about our continued education as a checkbox exercise, and instead use it strategically to learn about the technology and ways of working we need in the future, and how we can apply them every day.

This thinking outside the box is what is going to give us, and our organisations, the competitive edge. Making sure we continue widening our horizons, planning the best journeys and reacting rapidly to the unexpected—ensuring the icebergs of our future are only chilling the whisky in our glass!

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