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How to navigate the digital age

Shutterstock_761152348We know that disruption is upon us. Not later, not soon, but right this instant. We’re already in the digital age and the profession is changing fast and challenging our minds to keep up. However, we still need a bit of help with some aspects of disruption. For example, what skills and mindsets will help us navigate the digital age? We spoke with Jim Bourke, CPA, CITP, CFF, CGMA, and Managing Director of Advisory Services for US-based WithumSmith+Brown, who travels internationally to address these questions among others. He also advises on how to stay ahead of the curve and strategically grow your business during the fourth industrial revolution that is transforming the finance and accounting professions. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: We hear a lot about digital transformation and digital readiness. What has changed in the last couple of years?

A: It's more of an awareness than anything else. And what has happened is? We have all these tools that are coming into the marketplace to help us analyze that data. The problem that we have in this profession, though, is that we're still following standards that were built before this explosion of data. So, we're following so many of these legacy rules. I know at the AICPA and CIMA we’re working extremely hard to work with the regulators to bring them up to speed to change the way in which we do an audit, to get away from the sampling world, and focus on looking at one hundred percent. Today there are tools available that allow us to more rapidly analyze one hundred percent of the data than to go through a traditional “accountant type” or “sampling type” technique on an audit process.

Q: What is that digital mindset we need right now that will take us and the profession where we need to go?

A: When you start an audit, you do something called a brainstorming session. And you sit in a brainstorming session with, to be politically correct, I’ll call them with legacy people, and you have new people on the audit: the millennials and the “gen Y’s”. That generation has grown up with technology. They understand technology. So basically, what we do is, we wipe the slate clean. When we start an audit, I say to the young professionals that are on the team, “Rethink this audit from your perspective. How can we audit differently?” Rely totally on the legacy players on the team to help drive us from standards perspective because they have that that great knowledge, but let's lean on technology. Let's find ways to utilize technology like we've never utilized technology before.

Q: We know the techies know the tech. But they don't always know the business. They don’t always know how that tech will help the business. Who drives the digital change in an organization?

A: So, think about the rally car. When a car wins a race, is it because of the driver? Is it because of the guy in his ear? No. There are lots of individuals on that team. It's a team effort, even though there's one driver. So, on an engagement, you may have an engagement partner. That's the one driver of the engagement, right? But to be successful in change, implementing change and technology advisory, it's an entire team. It's not the tech guys. Although I'd say technology is driving advisory services, everything we're doing in advisory is driven by technology. Why are we changing? Why are machines doing the manual task? It's because it's being driven by technology. So, the technology gurus – they need to have a seat at the table. The auditors need to have a seat at the table. The tax people need to have a seat at the table. It's not just about CPAs and chartered accountants anymore. Our whole profession is changing. Today we have all sorts of talent. We have engineers, we have all different people. We have software people, we have data scientists, we have so many different people around the table and they're all part of the team. Everyone plays a super important role in that transformation process.

Q: Are professional finance providers doing things in the same way everywhere?

A: The reason why I love my job so much is that no matter where I go, I speak English, right? But more importantly, I speak technology. And technology is the language that is embraced. I'm sitting here in London today. I talk about technology. Whether it's Sydney, whether its Mumbai, I don't care where it is on the globe. I'm speaking about technology. It's the common language. Yes, certain countries deal with slow internet speeds, some have fast internet speeds, but that's all smoke and mirrors because it's technology. From an audit perspective an auditor can't talk about audit in a common language around the globe. There are differences. Tax people can't talk about common tax issues around the globe. There are differences. Certain countries are moving faster than other countries with respect to this change. But technology is driving the globe and is driving our profession.

Q: What are some ways you'd suggest that a non-tech team can take on the role of a credible adviser or an advocate or someone who can drive the actions necessary?

A: You don't need to be a technologist. You don't need to be deep diving and understanding every single unique thing about technology in order to drive that change. The leaders of firms today, maybe some of the legacy leaders are not as tech savvy as some of the other individuals, but they’re responsible still for driving the ship and charging the direction where the firm is going. In order to allow the firm to remain relevant way into the future, the firm needs to change. Those leaders of today need to embrace change to get that ship sail on the right track so that the firm can be taken to the next level by the future leaders.

Q: “And if someone is uncertain about being credible when they’re talking to technologically savvy members of that team, what advice would you give them?”

A: Here's my philosophy. I don't know everything about tech, but I surround myself with those individuals that do. So together, we make change in the firm. Together, we enter the advisory space. Together, we deploy the right technologies. They have the skill sets and they understand technology. I know the profession very deeply. I know audit. I know tax. I know where we need to move as a profession and as a firm. And with a technologist behind us together as a team, we drive it.

Q: What's one big change that lies ahead?

A: What's coming up is going back to the roots of what we are as chartered accountants and as CPAs. We're the trusted adviser. Around the globe, we are the adviser. For many years, we got hung up with compliance type work, commodity type work, and today, we're realizing that is more of a commodity than anything else. Yes, look, we own the audit. We own the audit space. I love the audit. I own it.  I'm a CPA and I totally value the fact that we own that space. But, I'm also a realist.  I realize that our profession is changing. The true value that I bring to my clients, that everyone reading this blog post today brings to their clients is the fact that our clients come to us with every single need. And I'll tell you most of the questions I get asked by my clients don't relate to audit. They don't relate to tax. They relate to operations, they relate to life, they relate to other things. So that is where our true value lies. It's the transformation of our practices today from audit, from tax, to adviser. And that's the true value.

Bourke had a lot more to add regarding navigating the digital age and the mindset we’ll need to do it successfully. Ultimately, it’s much less about knowing all the details about technology, but more about understanding the way that technology is driving our profession as well as surrounding ourselves with those who do have a deeper knowledge of technology. To hear the whole conversation, check out Bourke’s episode of The Go Beyond Disruption podcast. And for more tips on adapting to the digital age, sign up to attend the annual ENGAGE conference online.

Mballa Mendouga, Communications - Manager, Corporation Social Responsibility & Campaigns, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

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