While it is widely believed that the accountancy profession is undergoing a radical digital transformation, the question that remains is who exactly will lead this transformation: accountants or technologists? The issue remains far from settled, with strong opinions on both sides of the issue.
L. Gary Boomer, visionary and strategist at Boomer Consulting, says it’s easier to train technologists on accounting procedures than the other way around, at least when it comes to auditing. He said it boiled down to a difference in mindset that those with a background in technology can approach accounting tasks with fresh eyes, as opposed to thinking strictly in procedural terms. Auditors, he said, want to use technology, but their reports would still follow procedures that he said would not really add value. When asked why they did this, he said, the auditor replied that it was necessary. And when asked exactly who needs these steps, they reveal it’s more of a personal preference.
Ultimately, he says, it’s about whether someone is using technology to do what they’ve always done but on a screen, or integrating technology into the process itself.
“I think the real key here is when you to mix together processes with technology, or improving processes with technology, you get rocket fuel. When you just look at the technology and just look at the processes, you don’t get the benefits that you might have,” he said.
When accountants started using word processors, he said, people treated them like they were just fancy typewriters. It has taken time for professionals to really unlock the benefits of technology and leverage it to add value to engagements. Even today, he says, some companies still haven’t made it.
Technology should be engaged holistically, as an overall system, so professionals can better understand how it can change what they do, rather than doing the same thing in a different way. To do otherwise, according to Boomer, is to be the person who has a smartphone but only makes voice calls.
Also on the technologist side is Jim Bourke, partner and managing director of the consulting services practice at Top 100 Firm Withum, which employs the two. At least in the realm of analysis, he said, it’s easier – “It really is!” — to train data scientists in accounting and accountants in technology. Although both work with information, they take very different approaches to how it is processed.
“The mind of data scientists does not work the same way as accountants. This data scientist can tell me what’s buried in the data, all the stories hidden under the data. My accountant can tell me the 30,000 foot view of the data and what the differences were each year,” he said.
As an example, he pointed out how difficult it was to train his accountants on data mining technology, such as how to strip a PDF of data without getting “page after page after page of headers and footers,” noting that this was often a complicated process. process for them to do so. In contrast, he said, technicians tend to pick up on the concept of auditing very quickly, and even if they can’t do an audit themselves, they tend to understand it more than auditors. understand technology.
“My data scientists also help on the auditing side. We teach them about auditing, purpose, and they realize it quickly. Can they audit financial statements? No, but they understand the concept of accounting much faster and much easier than my accountants understand complex technology,” he said.
Others, however, have insisted that it is better to train accountants in the technology, such as Joe Woodard, who leads the landmark technology conference Scaling New Heights. His reasoning is simple: at the end of the day, no matter how much technology is available, we are ultimately talking about accounting – something, he pointed out, that people go to school for years to learn.
Yes, he acknowledged, non-accountants can certainly perform accounting tasks with the right technology, noting that you don’t have to be an accountant to use Quicken, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can do it well. In a world where the quality of accounting work determines the success of an accounting firm, this is important.
Woodard compared him to a hobbyist buying power tools at Home Depot: “You can hurt yourself with some of the stuff in there, so maybe just because you can get it, just because you can get it. use, does not mean that you are an expert. I can buy a chainsaw at Home Depot, but that doesn’t mean I can chop down a tree. Or even if I can cut one, I don’t know the right way to do it,” he said.
The learning curve for accounting, he said, is much steeper, which means it’s not straightforward to train someone in proper accounting procedures. Conversely, he said, it’s not as difficult to train an accountant to use a particular software solution, although he added that that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy either.
“It’s easy to teach an accountant how to deploy technology. It’s not easy to get an accountant to deploy technology. So the knowledge they adhere to, the execution, you have to coach and that involves leadership changes [mindsets]their employees, their customers — a whole adoption curve,” he said.
Roman Kepczyk, director of business technology strategy at Right Networks, also said it’s easier to train accountants in technology. Beyond the technical accounting background Woodard mentioned, Kepczyk noted other soft skills that weren’t as prevalent among those with a tech background. To be more specific, accountants are trained to work with clients and therefore usually have at least slightly better communication skills. In a contest between communication and technology, he said, communication wins every time.
“We can take a technician and he can help automate the components so no one is needed, but I personally think you need someone who has good business skills, good communication skills, and then you can teach them how to use the technology,” he said.
He noted that at the start of the pandemic, there was some resistance to working remotely from accounting executives, who had never previously had to work with teleconferencing software. That changed quickly, however, once it became clear that these technologies were needed. “We had companies where the partners were Luddites and didn’t use anything, but when they were forced to use Zoom or Teams, they made it work,” he said.
Is it really so binary?
Other experts have suggested that the dichotomy may not be as strict as one might think. Geni Whitehouse, the self-styled countess of communications and founder of the Impactful Advisor, said that instead of thinking about who is an accountant and who is a technologist, it’s better to just think about who has a background in analytics, because two have some blind spots. which make it dangerous to rely entirely on one or the other. Technologists, she says, can be trained in accounting concepts, but not as well as accountants; accountants, on the other hand, can certainly be trained in the use of technology, but will never be specialized programmers.
More important than where someone comes from, she says, is what they do.
“The really important thing today is that we have people wired to be curious and ask questions and figure things out for themselves. I’m always looking for new tools, ways to implement new tools,” she said, noting that even people hired from appropriate backgrounds can get stuck if they don’t know the right technologies. “We’ve had bookkeepers with an accounting background who don’t weren’t working because they couldn’t quickly acquire a new tool.”
Withum’s Bourke said it’s better to train accounting technologists, but nonetheless echoed Whitehouse in saying it’s not always a straight line. He noted that there are plenty of accountants out there who on their own already have extensive technology experience, and these professionals can be effective in the right situations, like the aforementioned PDF data issue.
“The way we solved the problem is that we had a handful of accountants who understood the technology. We took these tech-savvy accountants, the ones who really understood auditing and technology, and today we have them on a team that handles all aspects of data-related audits for our staff,” he said. declared.
This story is part of an Accounting Today series called “The Frontier,” where we explore the cutting edge of accounting technology through conversations with thought leaders across the country, who will share with us their observations, hopes, their concerns and even some predictions here. and there. We’ll see you at the border.
See the rest of the series here.