By Reuter Chua, Country Head of ACCA Singapore

The digital world is now the accountant’s world. Technology has enabled the profession to change and grow.

Looking back, it was the finance function that was first to be automated, where accountants became the business partners and consultants within large enterprises as they computerised and re-engineered all their business processes.

Back to the present and we see no deceleration of technology in finance and business. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the accountant. Perhaps it is more of a challenge for the small to medium sized practitioners (SMPs), the experts who advise small firms and entrepreneurs, simply because they do not have the necessary internal support functions that larger firms have. However, many SMEs seek out SMPs for their advice and guidance.

There is a sense that small business accountants may be lagging behind, still working in a desktop or even paper-based model. But change is happening, with accountants generally embracing digital technology – the cloud based accounting applications that capture information and process it seamlessly.

Digitalisation is a significant opportunity for the SMP of today and tomorrow – a point we make very clearly in our new report The passionate practitioner: developing the digitised small and medium sized practice.

Here, we assert that technology is having a profound effect on the SMP sector, providing significant opportunities for accountants to remodel their practices and to offer increased, relevant, services. We explore the nature of that opportunity, set out business cases and also share successful case studies about how to implement change.

Many economies, including here in Singapore, are reliant on SMEs to drive and sustain growth and the SMPs who advise them have a vital role in that growth. The SMP with the most to offer are those who have embraced digital and technology, and who can use their advisory skills alongside technology to add value for their clients.

Loving their work

For this report, we spoke to a number of leading SMPs about their digital progress, and what came up time and again was the passion they have for their work, their practice and for their clients. One word was said a lot – ‘love’.

Digital accountants have told us that they love the digital technology that can make their lives easier, they love the like-minded clients they work with, they love accountancy itself: they love their jobs – and their lives. They see digitalisation as one of the greatest opportunities since the invention of the spreadsheet to transform their business and their clients.

Taking the next steps

Transforming a practice to become digital needs strategic planning. In big business this is often easier because there are departments or teams available to do this work. But for the smaller practitioner, they often need to be the driver of change.

To help, we’ve identified a three-step plan for success that has the components of people, process and technology. It is important to balance each of three elements throughout the change process.

When developing the strategy and plan, it is important to identify the market segment for the practice’s focus, on what clients are on the books now and where they see growth in the future. Resources and skills also need to be reconsidered and plans put into action for training and development.

Once established, the successful practice needs to take advantage of the changing software environment; to maintain its advantages and grow, seeing new opportunities as its clients develop with it.

Above all, however, the message from those who have been though such change is that they enjoy this work. They have a passion for their business and their clients’ businesses- they see technology as an enabler.

The impact of digitalisation is one of profound change; it changes the way accountancy is actually done, but it also shifts the structure ad purpose of the SMP and how they work with their clients.

It can accelerate revenues and growth of the SMP, while also freeing-up time for more value-added advice and guidance. It also helps balance the SMP’s workload, while offering flexibility for staff. The anytime, anywhere nature of the cloud allows employees to free themselves both from office hours and the office itself. Within limits – and backed-up by clear security and data protection policies – accountants can fit when and where they work around other demands on their time.

This flexibility also extends to clients who can access their financial data out of hours, doing bank reconciliations when on the move, and so on.

Skills for a digital world

This is a world where it would be no exaggeration to describe the accountant of the future as something of a cyborg: when a business communicates with its accountants, the latter is also in touch with all that businesses’ financial data, and the accountant’s brain in augmented by apps tools and artificial intelligence.

Training and development is therefore an essential part of digital adoption, but this is not just about understanding how the cloud works. Digitalisation, and the move to advisory and value-added work, will also need accountants to develop new, ‘softer’ skills on top of their core financial skills.

Recruitment practices are changing. In the past accountants could recruit mainly on a basis of accounting competency, but there is now more need to look at digital skills and a good cultural fit.

EQ – emotional intelligence, which ACCA has defined as one of the seven core skills for success – and interpersonal skills are playing a much bigger part in future, as will broader business skills such as marketing.

ACCA has always covered the technological developments that keep our members and students at the forefront of their profession. Because digital is a vital professional quotient, the ACCA Qualification ensures that we develop and assess digital skills from the very start of someone’s journey with us, and which continues all the way to membership and beyond.

The move to digital is the ideal catalyst for accountants to begin the transition from trusted adviser to trusted guide. We see this as a truly transformational time, and as our case studies reveal in our report, there is perhaps no better time to love being an accountant, and to be passionate about your clients.