Helen Brand, chief executive of ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants), says, “Understandably, digital skills are now essential and will only grow in importance in the coming decade. As new and upcoming technologies arrive thick and fast, a digital focus is no longer a luxury—it’s a necessity.” This isn’t new advice for management accountants, as we watch organizations increasingly rely on technology to facilitate accounting and business functions. But it’s frustrating to be reminded about the importance of developing technology skills without a clear picture about the skills we need to learn, let alone how to learn them. The right technology-learning strategies for management accountants help prepare us for the rise of the digital focus on information processing.
ANALYZE DATA AND CREATE DATA VISUALIZATIONS
With the exponential growth of accounting and business information and data generated by organizations, management accountants need to learn how to manage and analyze data and present it clearly and concisely. While you may be using spreadsheet programs to do this, you need to adopt data analytics tools that protect the integrity of the data by standardizing and automating its collection, calculations, and presentation. Tools like Tableau (www.tableau.com) are easy to use, dramatically faster, and increase productivity through automatic data feeds and processing. To replace a spreadsheet model, a regional healthcare system in Florida implemented a Tableau-based data analytics application to analyze profitability by product lines to answer the CEO’s questions after the monthly close. The spreadsheet model took the CFO 30 hours to prepare; the Tableau model took seconds. Tableau presents the results as a visualization in graph or chart form that allows data drilldown to further analyze results. Management accountants who master data analytics tools will be in high demand in their organizations. Tableau’s instructional tutorials are outstanding.
VALUE YOUR MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTING AND BUSINESS KNOWLEDGE
Technology tools that are implemented without an understanding of an organization’s management accounting and business processes probably aren’t sustainable. Management accountants should be part of the team that identifies, evaluates, and implements technology tools. Organizations can throw technical resources at business issues and projects, but without people who understand the details of how the organization ticks and the implications to its processes, the system may not work as intended. Management accountants can play a vital role collaborating with technical personnel to educate them about management accounting and business issues. Management accountants’ participation adds true value to their organizations because their knowledge is priceless.
BUSINESS PROCESS IMPROVEMENT AND AUTOMATION
How often have you been working on a transaction and can see how it could be improved? Business process improvement and efficiency can be achieved through automation. ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems automatically route processes and can also be configured to ensure compliance with internal controls and approval levels. Management accountants have an opportunity to evaluate existing business processes and add new ones to improve efficiency. For example, manual travel and expense reporting systems are inefficient, are susceptible to lost documentation, and are ideal candidates for automation. Many ERP systems include canned features like these, or you can research add-on programs. Process automation doesn’t have to involve sophisticated processes; every organization can start with the low-hanging fruit.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE TECHNOLOGY HORIZON
A checklist of technology skills that you could master and check off might be a handy tool, but, as Helen Brand says, new technologies are coming “thick and fast.” Keeping up with new developments is overwhelming, so gaze into the technology crystal ball. Pay attention to technology trends and think about the implications to your organization as new technology becomes accessible. For example, in April 2017, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told the company’s shareholders that it’s applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve complex problems that don’t have “if-then rules” to facilitate automating operations. He admits that this technology isn’t ready to use, but the company is pursuing its potential to improve processes and customer service. Another emerging technology is robotics. Michael Castelluccio, editor of the Strategic Finance TechNotes blog, wrote “Robots in the Field” (October 26, 2016), describing an innovative use of robotics. This technology isn’t available today but is an example of the future. Keep abreast of new technology, track its progress, and identify how your organization can deploy it to achieve competitive advantage.
RAISE YOUR TECHNICAL INTELLIGENCE
You don’t need to become a technology expert overnight. Treat raising your technical intelligence as a goal that will enhance your skills, providing valuable career development that enables leveraging of your management accounting and business knowledge. Volunteer to participate on technology projects, join a cross-functional project team composed of technical and business representatives, seek assignments that will educate you about your organization’s ERP system, and submit ideas for process improvement and automation. Take classes on business modeling, business process improvement, accounting information systems, and data analytics. Every technology project or class will increase your technical intelligence and open doors to participate on future projects. Technical intelligence starts with developing an awareness and a working knowledge of technology, valuable steps on your way to becoming a technical expert. Don’t get left behind: Your organization needs your technology skills now.
IMA provides excellent resources about the latest technology trends:
Strategic Finance features technology columns and technology feature stories by member practitioner experts who share their experiences. http://sfmagazine.com
IMA’s Inside Talk Webinars present emerging issues in technology such as data analytics, blockchain, and technology trends to watch. Participate in person or watch the archives. www.imanet.org/education-center/webinars
SF TechNotes is a blog by Michael Castelluccio covering breaking-news tech trends. http://sfmagazine.com/technotes
Technology Enablement research, which includes Statements on Management Accounting (SMAs) and joint research studies/surveys with organizations like Robert Half and ACCA, covers emerging research issues as well as technology in the workplace. www.imanet.org/search#hawktabfield=it&it=content&topic=Technology%20Enablement