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Future accountants: a bright future awaits

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Professional accountants can play key roles in a future that requires skills in strategic thinking, addressing sustainability, supporting innovation and driving the digital agenda.

Professional accountants take pride in their work, and a number of significant trends indicate that the future should continue to be bright for those whose careers are already in progress as well as for aspiring accountants just beginning their studies.

These trends range from the rise of data and spread of automation, to the increasing acceptance of the importance of intangible assets and non-financial capital. They include growing recognition of the link between innovation and diverse, inclusive workforces, as well as the changing nature of the workforce itself. The workforce shifts include many people having longer working lives and retiring later. Meanwhile, younger generations entering employment have changing aspirations and perspectives. Digital natives (those born after 1997) not only see mobile devices as the norm and embrace social media, but also, research suggests, seek meaning and purpose in their personal and professional lives.

Accountants can act as digital playmakers, identifying the potential of technology to transform finance and business operations.

These and other trends shaping the environment in which professional accountants will be working in future are identified in a new ACCA report, due to be published this month. The report draws on desktop research, a member survey and in-depth interviews conducted with senior finance leaders, HR professionals and recruitment specialists in key markets.

Taking stock of the various trends shaping the future of business and work, the report sets out a model to identify ways in which accountants can enjoy fulfilling and exciting careers. This model, according to Jamie Lyon, the report’s author and portfolio lead – professional insights at ACCA, rests on the central proposition that modern society is increasingly focused on building a sustainable future, and that organisations need to focus on developing sustainable and purposeful businesses.

‘That is driving the future of the profession,’ says Lyon. ‘This report is all about the opportunities that exist for professional accountants in creating and supporting this sustainable world.’

The model set out in the report envisages accountants finding exciting opportunities to support the sustainability imperative in five broad ways: as assurance advocates, business transformers, data navigators, digital playmakers and sustainability trailblazers (see panel). These aren’t specific roles or career paths, but areas where professional accountants can bring their expertise to bear for the benefit of their organisations and the wider community.

Professional accountants could have an impact in more than one of these areas during their careers. Lyon envisages a future world of career multiplicity, where individuals may have many different types of role during their working life, building lattice careers rather than climbing the traditional career ladder. ‘We will see more fluidity in terms of how people navigate across different types of activity,’ he says. ‘Roles are changing more quickly, and that is driving quicker turnover of skills. That in turn is driving the transformation of how we learn. The ways in which we learn need to change along with the skills we need to develop.’

Who will you be?

Five broad role areas that support the sustainability imperative for societies and businesses are beginning to open up for professional accountants.

Assurance advocate. In fast-changing, digitally disrupted markets, organisations need to manage risk appropriately and ethically. Professional accountants can use digital tools and technologies to transform the risk, reporting and internal control landscape to create and preserve value. They can also support responsible business practice, and drive transparency and trust in the organisation.

Business transformer. Business models will keep evolving in response to new technologies and markets. Accountants can support businesses of all sizes in these efforts, by leading finance operational change programmes or wider business transformation initiatives.

Data navigator. Data is an enterprise asset that can be used in everything from building the business case for new investments to profiling competitive threats. Accountants can act as strategic advisers, helping to develop and apply rich data sets and analytical tools to provide real-time insights into how to create and sustain long-term value.

Digital playmaker. Digital adoption is key to creating competitive advantage through innovation. Accountants can act as technology evangelists, identifying the potential of robotics and machine learning to transform finance and business operations, and working with tech teams to drive productivity and better decision support.

Sustainability trailblazer. In a world of increasingly constrained resources and disrupted business models, value is created by more than just financial capital, and intangible assets are a growing proportion of enterprise value. Accountants can set frameworks that capture, measure and report on activities that truly drive value, providing more meaningful and transparent information about the organisation’s performance.

For example, if new skills quickly become in demand and others become obsolete, individuals will need the capacity to keep learning. Scheduled traditional learning formats are likely to be increasingly replaced with new digitally enabled and workplace-based options that support ‘learning in the now’ – meeting the need for rapid access to new knowledge and skills. So although the concept of continuing professional development is already firmly established in the accountancy profession, it is going to become more important.

In playing their part in building sustainable businesses, accountants will still need to apply the seven professional competencies – or quotients – identified by earlier ACCA research. These quotients include the more typical competencies (technical and ethical, intelligence, digital, and experience) as well the softer skills (creative, digital and emotional intelligence). For example, the emotional intelligence quotient could become particularly important in future, through assisting in understanding the viewpoints of wider stakeholders or advocating ethical approaches to the adoption of new technologies.

These professional quotients are still very relevant in this emerging world,’ Lyon says. ‘Accountants will need to apply all their broad skills to have maximum impact in organisations seeking to build sustainable business strategies and operations. Those who succeed can look forward to a new world of opportunity and the chance to build brilliant careers.’

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