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The status quo is not an option

Praxity Global Conference

Written by Ian Lavis, Praxity​

The Praxity Global Conference 2016 demonstrated sharing international expertise has never been more important as firms face unprecedented challenges in the digital age.

Futurologists would have us believe the digital revolution will gradually render humans – in particular auditors – surplus to requirements. Praxity’s 10th Global Conference demonstrated this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Far from surrendering to the inevitable march of technology, delegates at the Gleneagles conference in Scotland glimpsed a future where auditors, and accounting professionals in general, can continue to play a vital but very different role in global business.

The conference highlighted the big data revolution has become the smart data revolution, where the most successful firms will be the most agile and adaptable. To gain competitive advantage, member firms should embrace new technology, not by letting robots take over but by investing in people to monitor data systems and provide more creative, intuitive client solutions.

Challenging times call for creativity

Phil Verity, Deputy CEO, Mazars Group, said the changes taking place in the profession represent “one of the most challenging environments I can remember” while Matt Snow, CEO, Dixon Hughes Goodman, called on firms to engage employees differently and encourage them to be “more creative”.

Delegates were reminded that people and not machines will win new business, and that ethics and integrity will be as important as ever in the industry as it becomes more automated.  

Therewas a timely call to protect accounting businesses against the very real and growing threat of cybercrime. There was also a warning that regulatory bodies and training associations need to keep up with the pace of change if firms are to become truly agile.

In his opening ‘State of the Nation’ address, Praxity Chairman Hilton Saven said member firms needed to respond to seismic changes within the profession. He explained: “The new workforce with new skills and expectations; the new technology with all its plusses and minuses; and the different expectations of clients and investors, all lead to the need for us to adapt, and with confidence.”

He called for member firms to “work together, exchange views and provide feedback”, adding: “Member firms need to be able to offer innovative solutions or initiatives with confidence to clients so that everyone can optimise the opportunities these present.”

A taste of the future

The main theme of the conference was big data and delegates were given an extraordinary view of the future where humans become overseers of machines capable of processing vast amounts of information in seconds. 

Gillian Docherty, CEO of The DataLab, which helps companies innovate using data analytics, said: “Companies that innovate in the use of data significantly outperform their competitors in many, many ways.” She explained that big data enabled firms to spot anomalies, diagnose what happened, predict future patterns and prescribe what to do.

Just how accounting firms can benefit from new technology was demonstrated by Gilly Lord, PwC’s Head of Audit Strategy and Transformation, who demonstrated how the automation of data is improving both the efficiency and quality of auditing.

She told delegates that end-to-end ERP systems and new software, which combines automated data integration, visualisation and analytics, enable auditors to process and check millions of transactions in an instant, thus enabling a more complete audit.

Auditors can breathe easy

The ability of artificial intelligence to spot anomalies in huge amounts of data, could be important in detecting fraud and widen the scope of corporate reporting. Gilly said: “Whoever develops the best artificial intelligence will have a massive competitive advantage,” but she added that auditors could “breathe easy” because the new technology is non-sentient and thus fully reliant on humans to provide algorithms.

This vision of the future places the auditor as an overseer of machines; an intuitive, ethical monitor ensuring artificial intelligence operates effectively. “Our role is going to change from checking the data to checking the algorithms.” 

Think differently

It’s not only the role of the auditor that needs to change, according to Professor Jamie Anderson who encouraged accountants at all levels to think and work more creatively as they adapt to the digital world.

He told delegates that people tend to frame problems from their own perspective, providing a narrow view of the world. Using a series of practical demonstrations, he explained how metacognition – the awareness or analysis of one’s own thought processes – is key to developing new ways to solve problems where reflection and introspection replace assumptions and hierarchy. 

This importance of recognising and developing human qualities in the digital age was a key focus of the conference. Anton Colella, Chief Executive of ICAS (The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland), said that for all the merits of new technology, the accounting profession must put people above machines.  

Putting people first

“The futorologists predict the demise of the accounting profession. I have a very different view of the world,” Anton said. “The revolution we need to explore, and we ignore it at our peril, is the transformation of our people. The business model going forward is the commercialisation of wisdom.”

He said the accountancy profession was in danger of losing sight of its five ethical principles of: integrity; objectivity; professional competence and due care; confidentiality; and professional behaviour.   

Anton added that “hundreds of thousands are coming into the profession and all they are doing is getting a qualification”. Urging Partners to spend more time with young employees to impart knowledge, tell stories and inspire people, he said the way forward was to invest in integrity, not just technology.

Calling for a sixth ethical principle of ‘moral courage’, he said the challenge was to “exemplify integrity” to create a revolution where businesses go to accountants for independent courage and wisdom.

Empathisers and data scientists

The need to focus on training and beliefs was echoed by lecturer and author Daniel Susskind, who told the conference young accounting professionals are often livid because the world they are entering is not what they trained for. 

He said new roles will be created like empathisers and data scientists, and the emphasis will be on how to use technology to solve problems differently. He added: “There is a big burden on our training associations.  It goes back to the things we are teaching our young people in schools. They need social and interpersonal skills, and communication skills.” 

He stressed that one of the biggest changes that will take place is in the belief system of professional firms, arguing that firms need to ask themselves what they believe can be done more quickly, cheaply, differently or to a higher quality using machines, and what humans can do alongside this. The best way to prepare for the future, he concluded, was to invent it.

Collaboration is key

In a panel session immediately following the key presentations, Phil Verity, Deputy CE0, Mazars Group, said firms need to address the three t’s of technology, talent and transformation. He called on firms to be more open to stimulus and collaboration. 

A more collaborative approach is already being tested. Matt Snow, CEO, Dixon Hughes Goodman, revealed that four Praxity member firms in the US had teamed up to create an ‘incubator’ to develop and test new technologies in the assurance space. “We are working together with a common goal that benefits our firms and our clients,” he said. “It’s being run completely differently from anything else we have done together.”

As firms meet the challenge of the digital age, it is clear that organisations will need to align themselves differently and adopt a more creative approach to delivering client services.

More value for member firms

Praxity has grown into the largest alliance of independent accountancy and consulting firms in the world. Member firms have a combined turnover of USD 4.5 billion, with 61% growth, just nine years since Praxity was formed. 

In his opening address at Gleneagles, Praxity Chairman Hilton Saven outlined several new initiatives to add value to member firms and their clients including:

1. A new task force to assist member firms to work together on an international basis.

2. A new secondments website tool to help member firms manage staff numbers while helping employees to find secondments within the Alliance.

3. More online content for member firms to rebrand and redistribute to their clients.

4. Country specific tax guides for every member firm to distribute to potential clients. This will assist with complex tax matters when doing business internationally.