OPINION: How professional accountants will remain relevant
JOHANNESBURG - Future shifts in demands and activities are unavoidable for all professions.
The future of the accounting profession as one that remains relevant and vital to the prosperity of the societies in which it operates, depends on its ability to focus on what is required to sustain its relevance in an evolving, changing, and technologically-dominated future. Research commissioned by South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) points clearly to the need to avoid a business-as-usual approach, for that leads down the path of irrelevance.
For any profession with a long history of high global rankings (among others by the World Economic Forum), as well as a Code of Professional Conduct that serves as a role model for equivalent institutes around the world, there also exists the dangers of complacency. SAICA realises this, and it also highly values sustained high-level managerial leadership. Therefore, the institute consistently evaluates its current position in the changing international business environment, and it plans future strategy based on thorough research – thus also providing a broad perspective to the accounting profession.
SAICA recently commissioned Stellenbosch University’s Institute for Futures Research (IFR) to produce a report based on current public domain information, with the specific purpose to contribute to the profession’s need to remain relevant. One of the IFR’s foremost aims was to provide perspective that goes beyond the narrow focus of technology or the risk of automation often commented on in the relevant literature. The value of this research lies in an overview of a wide set of emerging trends in the increasingly complex environment in which accountants operate.
Shifts in paradigm
‘As the generational make-up of the working age population shift over the next 20 years and the Millennials and Generation Z step forward, one can expect the nature of leadership to shift accordingly. Characterised by a preference for a more collaborative leadership style, the next generations are expected to dismiss or disrupt existing hierarchical structures and employment paradigms. Freed from geographical constraints, the next knowledge workers are projected to be highly mobile, and many will participate in the gig economy,’ states the IFR report.
An overarching trend is that workplaces of the near future will have more generations, be more connected and more global, and require more skills. Over the next 20 years, South Africa’s population is expected to grow, with increasing numbers of people remaining economically active for longer, creating the possibility of having up to five generations in the same workplace.
The next generations, more connected than ever before, will prefer a more collaborative leadership style, and will dismiss hierarchical structures and employment paradigms. No longer inhibited by 20th century definitions of the concept of ‘work’ and ‘career’, these youngsters are likely to engage in a lifetime of learning that could take them on a journey of diverse careers and employment statuses.
Future strategies for changing paradigms
There is encouraging news for the future strategy of individual accountants, as well as accountancy firms and organisations in the findings. The IFR found that the personal qualities of CAs(SA) are, and will remain, in demand.
‘The world needs professionals that they can trust; people with bright minds, disciplined approaches, a systems view of the world, coupled with a significant dose of professional scepticism; people able to act as integrators in a very complex world,’ says the report.
Encouragingly, it concludes that the core skills set of the accounting profession perfectly positions it to help businesses translate the sustainable development goals it has identified into meaningful targets and actions that are relevant to their unique context: ‘From measurement, assurance, through to reporting, professional accountants could grasp the opportunity to extend their reach and dare to shape these goals.’
Future generations will engage in lifelong learning, which could take them to a journey of diverse careers and employment opportunities. This demands adjustments by leaders as well as employees, and has implications for training and other strategies, building on the core skills that are already being taught to CAs(SA).
Expectations and responsibilities
While acknowledging the risks for the accounting profession, it is encouraging to find reason for optimism in the IFR findings. A distinctive feature of the chartered accountancy profession is that it acts as a springboard into the world of commerce. The industries with which SAICA members are familiar, cover the full spectrum of modern-day commerce, and CA(SA) specialists include a wide variety of disciplines, such as tax specialists, forensic, technology and reporting specialists, as well as generalists.
The research noted that expectations of what the profession can and cannot do were skewed – for example it is assumed that by signing off the financial statements, an accountant would also be signing off the integrated report. At times this might not be the case, as it depends on the engagement letter.
Similarly, many members of the profession are expected to be experts even in fields in which they do not specialise. This implies both opportunities and threats for the profession, and for future training, upskilling and communication about the role of the profession.
The IFR also urges the profession to deploy technology in a responsible and ethical manner. ‘SAICA members need to maintain their revered professional scepticism to ensure that algorithms are free of bias and that there are sufficient safeguards against malicious intent.’
They also say that ‘companies and executives are directing more and more resources and attention towards the pursuit of integrity and transparency as mechanisms to manage their market reputation. The future of organisational ethics is at the confluence of strategy and statements of purpose and whether they will be congruent with the behaviours of those in the organisation at all levels.’
SAICA values the information gained from research such as the IFR report. Undoubtedly it will help to guide the organisation and its members to invest in the better understanding of some of the concepts growing in a world of increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
The IFR report perfectly summarised this when they say: ‘Chartered accountants already have the foundation that is needed to become the stronghold of integrity in society beyond just the narrow confines of their current mandate.’
Kedibone Pilusa is the SAICA Project Director: Members In Business.
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