WITH the Covid-19 pandemic resetting many business models, finance and accounting professionals need to reposition themselves for newer and broader roles to remain relevant to businesses going forward.
Even before the pandemic, artificial intelligence and innovative technologies had started to replace process-driven, repetitive, or manual accounting tasks. That said, industry players are not convinced that finance professionals will lose relevance even as the business landscape shifts.
However, accountants will need to change their focus and acquire a broader range of skills in areas such as strategic communications and thinking; the ability to organise work and people efficiently; execute business plans, support innovations, and address business sustainability.
"Accountants play an important role, but progressively, as we move towards a new economy, they will play a very different role. It is no longer about keeping the numbers, I think that's a given. But if we restrict ourselves, our relevance can, to some extent, be replicated and replaced fairly easily. But it is the understanding, the perspective, the nuances that are going to be quite important," said Vincent Yik, group chief financial officer, Singapore Post, at CPA Australia's CFO Connect Symposium in July.
Adding value is key
Simply put, finance professionals cannot merely be providers of reports. Rather, they must look to add value by asking relevant questions, helping businesses organise internal systems and processes, and ensuring that what matters is measured and managed. Only then can they become an indispensable resource to the organisations they work for.
"In my view, accountants who regularly build on 'value-adding' capabilities will not lose their relevance in the industry. In this context, 'value-adding' refers to the ability to contribute strategic ideas as finance and business advisers to help grow the business. The human talent for creativity can never be replaced by machines," says Li Lian Yang, partner, AccountStaff.
"Organisations still need people to provide direction and guidance to improve sales, reduce costs, increase profits and returns on investments - areas that CFOs and senior finance professionals can add value to."
She noted that technology will not overtake the strategic advisory function of finance professionals that requires human judgment and interaction, but rather enhance the way they work.
Bringing back the sheen
Having lost some of its lustre over the years, there is a need to help improve the accountancy profession's image. "I do think we have a branding issue as accountants. When I see the interests of new graduates, and what people are studying and keen to learn about, the profession has lost a bit of its sheen," said Greg Unsworth, digital business and risk assurance leader, PwC Singapore, at the CPA Symposium.
Speaking at the same event, Themin Suwardy, associate provost, postgraduate professional education, Singapore Management University, noted the need for "change agents" who can better showcase the profession's abilities.
"We need people who are making change and saying, 'This is how I do it. And I chose to do it with accounting, and with finance.' You really need to showcase that you can do wonderful things with accounting," he said.
Themin also suggested profiling some of the more interesting career paths that finance professionals have taken beyond accounting, whether as business leaders or startup founders. "That's how we can at least create more interest in the profession."
Staying ahead of the curve
Accountants also need to show their ability to deal with the important issues of the day. Two such areas in today's context are digitalisation and sustainability, and in particular, environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) factors.
As accountants understand organisational systems, people, and processes, they can help drive the digital agenda. They also play a vital role in assessing the ESG costs and benefits of business processes, and have the knowledge to integrate ESG strategy with finance and accounting. "This would help stakeholders better understand innovations, business risk management, and resource allocation decisions for companies to evaluate how environmental considerations affect their operations," explained Li.
Unsworth believes that accountants are in a good position to help businesses with their ESG strategies, especially as concerns over greenwashing mount. "The way we're training our financial professionals, we are ideally placed to really take a lead on this. That's going to be really important because people are talking about an ESG bubble building. There are obviously fears about greenwashing. So without finance professionals being able to enhance that accountability, that trust, it's going to lead to issues around impacting the market, around the value of ESG initiatives," he said.
However, to stay current in a rapidly changing environment, accountants must adopt a lifelong learning mindset that could involve changing career paths. Said Themin: "We all have a role to play in making sure that we know lifelong learning means something, not just because it's a CPD (Continuous Professional Development) requirement, but because it allows us to continue to be relevant, to be safe, to be again moving forward."