According to a McKinsey survey of global executives, 67% of leadership said they’d accelerated their investment in AI and automation since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Though automation is reducing the need for workers performing routine tasks, the demand for highly skilled workers is increasing nonetheless. Management accountants need to develop and maintain those technical and professional skills in highest demand. Flexibility and the agility needed to adapt will be critical in the coming years, particularly within the six key competencies identified in the IMA® Management Accounting Competency Framework.
REPORTING AND CONTROL
While improving your reporting, control, and other traditional management accounting competencies will continue to be important (i.e., changes to tax laws and financial standards will continue to evolve), the ongoing adoption of technology will relegate many routine and repetitive tasks in favor of digital automation. Further, more creative tasks will be done in conjunction with software and machines.
These core competencies can’t be omitted from your development plan, but nowadays they’re just the core skills required to enter the profession and maintain your position. Even here, the “table stakes” are quickly changing. A high level of technical acumen is now a must-have skill if one wants to remain competitive in our profession.
TECHNOLOGY AND ANALYTICS
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a tool that’s already being used to speed monthly closures and automate common repetitive accounting processes. When integrated with advances in data analytics, machine learning, and AI, even more complex decision-making processes are possible. These decision alternatives will need to be assessed by highly skilled individuals who can properly assess each to attain a desired set of outcomes.
According to Grant Thornton’s 2020 CFO survey report, CFOs consider data analytics the most important skill set that needs to be developed within the finance function, closely followed by business strategy and application development. According to a recent American Accounting Association panel discussion of accounting educators and accounting firm representatives, the most important technical skills for new accounting hires include advanced Excel; data visualization; extract, transform, and load (ETL); modern programming languages; relational database fundamentals; and automation tools (a “nice to have”).
While advanced Excel skills are still important, an upskilling plan should also include learning newer data visualization tools, such as Tableau or Microsoft’s Power BI. Sought-after application development skills to incorporate include data wrangling skills using ETL tools such as Alteryx as well as the programming languages most used for data analytics and machine learning, Python and R. A general knowledge of relational databases (e.g., SQL Server, Oracle, and Db2), including SQL used to access, join, and manipulate data, would also be helpful. If in-house RPA tools aren’t available, UiPath, Blue Prism, and Automation Anywhere are three of the industry leaders worth investigating.
Although it’s expected that the percentage of remote work will decline from the highs seen during the pandemic, McKinsey and others forecast that most companies will move forward with a hybrid model where workers split time between the corporate office and the home office. This means that improving your digital communication skills will continue to be important. Adopting the latest innovations in video conferencing software (e.g., Zoom, Teams, Webex, etc.) as well as ancillary software (e.g., Jamboard, Flipgrid, etc.) will enable you to better collaborate with your coworkers and stakeholders regardless of their current physical location.
The ability to distill large amounts of data so you can succinctly present your analysis/recommendation(s) is critical. Being “data-driven” doesn’t mean overwhelming others with a vast dump of your Big Data analysis, but carefully preparing and curating your data visualizations to communicate the information’s story clearly to the intended audience.
STRATEGY, PLANNING, AND PERFORMANCE
The capacity created from effective automation projects has been key in allowing finance professionals to leverage other skills, such as strategic planning and execution. Grant Thornton’s CFO study listed business strategy as the second-most desired skill set that needs to be developed in the finance department. Strategic planning will also be influenced by technology advancements and capital investment decisions such as technology acquisition (fifth on Grant Thorton’s CFO wish list) that will require a deeper knowledge of technology and its business applications to make the best choices.
Developing strategic skills requires the ability to step back and look at the larger picture. Post-pandemic, there’ll be increased expectations in evolving the traditional financial measurements to include new nonfinancial measures of corporate success and more pressure on organizations to be better guardians of the world’s resources, both environmental and human. Study the balanced scorecard approach, and think about new measurements that may be needed and which measures should be made public to showcase your progress.
BUSINESS ACUMEN AND OPERATIONS
Currently, machine learning and AI applications are usually targeted at automating specific tasks within corporate silos. This presents an opportunity for professionals with cross-functional business skills to add value by collaborating and integrating results in ways that aren’t yet possible via technology. Especially important for management accountants is moving away from being viewed as cost-driven and toward being “revenue” driven.
In particular, this means working with the marketing department to examine what the customers value in a product and when different customer segments are willing to pay more for a specific bundle of features or features delivered when time is of the essence. With finance and marketing working together, better decision models will be created by incorporating both cost and revenue perspectives as well as an increased focus on the value-add of the customer experience (fourth on Grant Thornton’s CFO wish list).
Ethics is the foundation of IMA’s Competency Framework, but in the age of AI, there’ll be many new challenges. How will the ethics of the new AI models be properly vetted? Will your data governance committee need to evolve into a data and model governance committee? What needs to be done to comply with data-privacy legislation (e.g., General Data Protection Regulation, California Consumer Privacy Act)? Needless to say, there are many evolving ethical issues that should be incorporated into your upskilling plan.
There’s a lot on your plate for the next few years, but the success of your organization and your personal development depend on your ability to upskill and take on the new technical challenges of the Digital Age while improving your most human abilities in order to continue to add value where technology can’t yet.