New technologies are transforming our profession, and they’re also transforming the skills we’ll need to stave off extinction.
In a paper titled “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” University of Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne tried to gauge the odds that certain occupations will be completely automated within the next 20 years. Among their predictions:
- Tax preparation: 98.7 percent
- Bookkeepers: 97.6 percent
- Accounting and auditing: 93.5 percent
In fact, only seven occupations – cargo and freight agents, watch repairers, insurance underwriters, mathematical technicians, hand sewers, title examiners, and telemarketers – fared worse in the study than tax preparers.
“The researchers admit that these estimates are rough and likely to be wrong,” writes National Public Radio’s Quoctrung Bui. “But consider this a snapshot of what some smart people think the future might look like. If it says your job will likely be replaced by a machine, you’ve been warned.”
Other studies offer similar predictions:
- Art Bilger, a venture capitalist and expert at the Wharton School of Business, says 47 percent of the jobs in all developed nations will disappear in the next 25 years – that’s blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Moreover, says The Economist, “no government is prepared” for that level of job loss.
- Still other studies aren’t quite that alarmist. James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute, says “more jobs will change than will be automated away in the short to medium term.” That change will be extreme. While only 5 percent of jobs can be completely automated over the next 10 years using current technologies, Manyika says at least 30 percent of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations can be automated over the next decade, from welders to gardeners to CEOs.
One way or another – complete automation or partial – our jobs are about to change. This type of disruption is coming. In one notable example, in fact, it has already arrived.
Perhaps the biggest disruption bearing down on the CPA profession is coming from IBM Watson, a cognitive learning system that is capable of answering questions asked in natural language. From health care and education to law and finance to food preparation and satellite imagery, Watson is redefining how work gets done in stunning ways.
- In March 2016, KPMG announced plans to apply the Watson technology to the firm’s professional services offerings, including audit, tax, and advisory services.
- In February 2017, H&R Block announced it will be using Watson to help prepare tax returns at 10,000 of its offices nationwide.
This stuff isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s here and it’s impacting our profession as we speak.
How will CPAs react? Will they scramble to keep up, as usual? Or will they work to position themselves to move beyond that disruption and create future-focused value for their clients?
If they’re smart, they’ll do the latter – and that means learning the new skills they’ll need to remain relevant in an age of automation.
Numerous studies conducted over the past several years are nearly unanimous: Going forward, CPAs must become proficient at skills that have little to do with the profession’s traditional data-driven core. These skills include the following:
- Strategic and critical thinking
- Change management
- Inspiring and motivating others
- Decisiveness in times of ambiguity
The most important skill of all, though, might also be the most ambiguous. It’s anticipation – the ability to identify future trends early and position your organization and your clients to take advantage of those trends before they arrive. Renowned futurist and New York Times best-selling author Daniel Burrus calls it the key missing competency in business today.
He might be right. A 2014 report from The Sleeter Group found that the most often-cited reason why small and midsized businesses leave their CPA firms is because those firms provide reactive advice instead of proactive services. In essence, clients say they leave because their CPAs aren’t future-ready enough.
It seems the age of automation has also given birth to the age of anticipation. The good news is this: We’re starting to see more and more resources being developed specifically to deliver these types of competencies for accounting and finance professionals.
One is Burrus’s own Anticipatory Organization. The Business Learning Institute worked with Burrus to create a version of his Anticipatory Organization learning platform specifically for accounting and finance professionals. That’s available now and is becoming extremely popular among CPAs throughout the country.
Another is IBM’s Big Data University. It’s an online curriculum designed to help accounting and finance professionals learn key skills in artificial intelligence, big data, and cognitive computing – skills that will be huge differentiators going forward, and will help CPAs play a bigger role in guiding digital transformation within their organizations. The Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute have entered into an exclusive partnership with IBM to deliver these skills to accounting and finance professionals throughout the world.
As this age of automation progresses, accounting and finance professionals would be wise to ask themselves a few key questions:
“What can I become quite good at that’s really difficult for a computer to do one day soon?” Seth Godin writes. “How can I become so resilient, so human and such a linchpin that shifts in technology won’t be able to catch up? It was always important, but now it’s urgent.”
Put another way, to paraphrase Fast Company Editor Robert Safian, the most important skill going forward will be the ability to learn new skills.
The learning must begin now.
About Tom Hood and Bill Sheridan
Tom Hood, CPA, is CEO of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, and Bill Sheridan, CAE, is chief communications officer for MACPA and the Business Learning Institute.