Accounting and business strategy have always been closely related. Management accounting, in particular, supports the development of strategy in larger businesses. But as automation and globalisation squeeze the prices accountants can charge, even accountants catering to smaller firms are being forced to re-evaluate their role in the broader business.
Some experts believe Australia could take a leadership role in the reshaping of the global accounting industry over the coming years. But that will only happen, they say, if we successfully develop an understanding of the knowledge that professionals in the industry need, and if we properly define what it is that will make accountants truly valuable to business.
“I can see change happening now, and I have no doubt that Australia will lead the way in reshaping the accounting offering,” says Grant Bloxham, CEO of accounting advisory business Bstar.
“Our financial, legal and banking systems are very similar to those of other developed nations, all of which are feeling the effect of change. Our industry knows it needs to change. If we can do it well and do it quickly, then the world will look to Australia as a model for success.”
The increasing irrelevance of the old-style compliance accountant is an international problem – so much so that in 2013, the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) in the US launched the provocatively titled website competencycrisis.org.
Dr Raef Lawson, the IMA’s vice-president of research, says the IMA saw a profession losing its way when it came to broader business education.
“We not only recognised that the issue had become a larger problem as accounting roles continued to evolve,” he says, “but we also saw that organisations were losing their focus on the job to be done – provide accounting professionals with all the skills and education they need to be strategic business partners responsible for maintaining the health of their companies.
“Our key goal is to bring adequate education, training and networking back into focus for accounting professionals, employers and academia.”
Lawson says the talent gap begins as soon as new graduates take their first job, then widens throughout their careers when they and their teams are asked to perform in more diverse, strategic roles. He says little has changed in accounting education in the past 25 years, and that employment surveys from organisations such as Manpower Group continue to refer to the fact that accounting is one of the most difficult job categories for recruiters to find qualified talent.
Bstar’s Bloxham says one of the big threats to the local tax accounting business – cloud accounting software – is seriously affecting about 30 per cent of the traditional work previously carried out by accountants. Increasingly strict regulations and greater competition are also hurting the bottom line of many practices. The way businesses view the accounting role is shifting, and it is that shift that has exposed new threats, as well as fresh opportunities.
From Bstar’s research, Bloxham lists the most common issues and concerns for SME owners:
- managing cash flow and increasing profit;
- finding, developing and retaining the right staff;
- ensuring succession plans are in place;
- achieving a good level of work/life balance.
“But despite these issues,” says Bloxham, “when you dig down into what they are most likely to actually pay for, the number one service they’re after is a ‘board of advice’ to help implement changes. If accountants don’t begin to take these advisory roles in SMEs, then financial advisers will.”
Research and anecdotal evidence say businesses are hungry for strategic advice. But many SMEs, for instance, are managed by technicians who are buried in the business, busily carrying out its specialised work. They rarely have the time or the bandwidth to consider bigger issues around the management and direction of the business itself.
Kerry King, IPA Fellow and founder of The Advisor Institute, says accountants are perfectly placed to fill this advisory role. They possess a natural talent for financial analysis. So why aren’t more accountants playing a greater advisory role?
“Many simply don’t have the confidence to offer such a service to their clients,” says King. “They have the technical skills, but they don’t know how to use and communicate them. They don’t have the methodologies to ‘product-ise’ the offering for their clients, to put it in a format the client would understand.”
In an environment in which cloud software, ATO web offerings, bookkeepers and BAS agents are looking after the tax accounting for many businesses, accountants must learn to re-purpose their knowledge and skills or risk being pushed down the ladder of relevance.
“Accountants should never be processors of tax returns,” says King. “That should simply be a means to an end. If we don’t offer businesses strategies to set up structures that take better advantage of tax benefits, or give advice on credit policies for debt management, or teach clients how to figure out their optimum levels of inventory, then we’re not doing our job. We’re doing our clients a disservice if we simply let them lodge their own tax return via the ATO website.”
The most important step, adds King, is to ensure you present to your clients the advisory service offer in the first place. The consultant says he sees many clients whose reaction to his advice is commonly along the lines of: “Why didn’t my accountant ever tell me any of this?”
But don’t overdo it, he warns. Don’t show a client a complicated series of financial charts if there are realistically just one or two figures they’ll be truly interested in – identify those figures then show them how they can improve the figures by changing other parts of the business.
“If you show them that by changing their current strategy – by increasing margins or negotiating better stock prices or improving cash flow or increasing sales by putting more effort into marketing, etc – they can change those one or two figures that really mean a lot to them, then you have done your job,” says King. “You have become a trusted adviser with real value.”
In the meantime, the IMA’s Lawson has some good advice for all in the industry. At a personal level, do a self-assessment of your skills to identify knowledge gaps and put in place a plan to obtain necessary training and certification.
“At a higher level, finance and accounting professionals can advocate for more training opportunities within their organisations,” he says. “Finally, they should advocate at their local colleges and universities for those institutions to prepare well-rounded accounting students who are prepared for a successful career in accounting.”