As the world of work changes, the skills needed in various business functions are changing as well. Professions that have typically leaned toward the technical or administrative are being pressed to upgrade and play different, frequently larger roles, and upskilling outside of the traditional skills is becoming even more important.
For a look at one such profession that has been affected—that of the management accountant—People Matters asked Dr Josh Heniro, Senior Director, Southeast Asia and Australasia, with the Institute of Management Accountants, what the skills situation looks like in the finance function today. Here's what he shared.
What impact do you see 2020's disruption having had on the accounting and finance profession?
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, many finance functions across a range of organizations and sectors were already transforming or evaluating their operating models. The pandemic definitely highlighted a host of sustainability risks, accelerated digitalization, and added a new dimension in today’s global marketplace, making the need for digital skills, strategic analysis, and execution greater than ever.
Through investments in advanced technologies, finance is undergoing a shift from being reactionary and transactional to becoming a more proactive and analytical function with the agility to respond to business needs as they arise. One key change we are seeing is the role of the accounting professional.
While technical accounting is still an important foundation, accountants are being called on to demonstrate decision making, strategy, and leadership skills.
With the shift in dynamic accounting technology, today’s accountant is no longer burdened with task-oriented projects. The role of the accountant is changing to that of a business adviser, spending more time on creating value through decision support, data analytics, data visualization, and storytelling. Instead of preparing reports, future accountants will interpret them and make recommendations based on the data.
IMA recently conducted a global survey of finance and accounting professionals, posing questions related to COVID’s impacts on staffing, revenue management, upskilling, and reskilling. A key finding of the survey was the concern by finance and accounting professionals about whether their current professional skills will still be relevant in the post-COVID-19 era—12 percent of survey respondents believe their skills won’t be relevant, and another 10 percent are unsure.
Upskilling was broadly deprioritized across many industries last year. What was the situation like for management accountants? What do you predict the upskilling landscape will be like for the profession this year?
In recent results from an NTUC LearningHub survey, seven in 10 employers intend to hire workers with broader skill sets in the future and 84 percent of the employers said it was necessary for employees to pick up new skills due to changes to their businesses as a result of the pandemic.
In addition, a contracted job market coupled with fresh graduates into the labor market compounded by the pandemic, will force many to reskill and upskill to land a job in such a challenging job market and thrive in it.
Today’s finance function, which is pivoting from value stewardship to value creation, requires finance professionals to constantly upskill and acquire competencies related to communication, decision making, and leadership.
Continuous learning is important specifically in the realm of data analytics, automation, artificial intelligence, and other technologies.
As digitalization accelerates, the accounting profession will have to make a concerted effort to expand its knowledge beyond the traditional accounting curriculum, upskill and reskill for the competencies needed for a future of work dominated by digital technology, and data in order to stay relevant in the current environment and attract prospective companies into hiring. Professional certifications similarly will reflect these competencies.
What do you see as the top skills accounting and finance professionals need to acquire today?
Moving into 2021, we will see the emergence of the post-COVID economy with the rollout of vaccines, and an anticipated W-shaped recovery in the global economy, according to our Global Economics Conditions Survey for Q4 2020. Therefore, the industry will see a need for leaders who are well-versed in the finance function and technologies such as intelligent automation, RPA, data analytics, and blockchain in order to value-add the organization beyond reporting and disclosure. It is hence important that the entire ecosystem understands how interdependent the profession has become and that accounting and finance professionals are no longer responsible for just accounting. They are also business partner for finance, operations, and IT, among other areas.
Accountants are no longer just bookkeepers; they can now tackle tasks like strategic business planning, controls, succession, and more. Better technology creates better accountants, which enables better business owners to make better decisions.
For the finance function to capitalize on new technologies, and thus keep pace with the changes in the business world, the finance professionals within those departments must upskill. To align with the ever-shifting needs and innovations of the workplace, the desire and motivation to learn are necessary to stay relevant.
Do you think professionals themselves are ready to step out of their comfort zone? How can finance leaders get their teams moving in the right direction?
Our global study on the impact of COVID on the finance function found that 78 percent of the respondents were already interested in upskilling or reskilling before the pandemic. This shows that finance professionals are willing to improve their skills and stay relevant.
As companies face a widening skills gap with their current finance team in digital skills, strategic planning, and data storytelling, they also will likely commit more resources to training and re-training; this will offer opportunities for accountants to obtain the competencies and credentials required to succeed.
Finance leaders can support their teams by encouraging their employees to take up upskilling courses while balancing their workload, adjusting budgets to include subsidies or fees for these courses. Not only will upskilling improve the skills of an individual employee, it adds value to the finance team which as mentioned earlier, is essential in a time of digital transformation.
There is a general sense that moving forward from the pandemic, business performance will be much more heavily evaluated on an organization's ability to manage its talent. How might accounting professionals be able to work on such non-financial information in the near future?
Sustainability reporting can be part of the integrated reporting that more organizations globally are using, including both financial and non-financial information such as how a company is performing in environmental, social, and governance areas (ESG). The pandemic has both broadened the range of pressing ESG issues and sharply heightened investor/stakeholder pressure which will become increasingly important. According to the subject of an IMA report, from last year, the role of finance teams will be to work cross-functionally across the organization to integrate financial with non-financial reporting.
Finance leaders are also taking the initiative in moving beyond the culture of collaboration to make a company’s reporting include sustainability information, drawing on their ability to connect metrics to the organization's overall business case.
This requires cross-functional collaboration, for instance, with the sustainable business or environmental health and safety teams on climate risk, or with the HR department on human capital issues to prepare reports that address investors’ concerns and offer the clearest possible picture of where the company stands on sustainability. This will become increasingly important in the coming years.
Key for CFOs, and accounting/finance leaders, is to demonstrate a connection between sustainability and company value, that there is long-term profit in allocating capital to a business that practices sustainable growth and proactive risk management, employee engagement, retention and corporate reputation.