insight magazine

Today's CPA | Fall 2018

Be the Disruptor, Not the Disrupted

CPAs must rethink what they do, how they do it, and who does it.
Todd Shapiro ICPAS President & CEO


I was walking down LaSalle St. in Chicago and got goosebumps when I looked up and saw light pole banners honoring the 75th anniversary of Mary T. Washington Wylie becoming the first female African-American CPA in the nation. She started her own accounting firm in 1939 in the basement of her Chicago home during an era when accounting firms wouldn’t hire females or African-Americans, let alone a female African-American. She inspired other young African-American businesspeople and CPAs and paved the way for generations to come. Mrs. Wylie wasn’t only a visionary, trailblazer, and mentor but a disruptor.

Today, our profession is at a crossroads. At a recent conference, the speaker said, “We will never see a pace of change slower than right now.” Three major trends are impacting the profession: technological innovation, changing hiring practices, and new client demands. These interrelated trends are forcing CPAs to rethink what they do, how they do it, and who does it.

Robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) are already changing how work gets done. A study by Deloitte and Accenture states that “the amount of basic accounting work that robotics is predicted to automate or eliminate by 2020 may reach 40 percent.” While I see this transformation happening to a greater extent in the largest firms, I recently visited a firm of about 50 staff that’s looking at an AI-powered audit solution. At a recent ICPAS Chapter meeting, I asked the primarily older audience when they thought we’d see a significant impact from RPA and AI. The clear majority thought major change would occur in seven years or less. We may not reach the 40 percent automation mark by 2020 but it’s coming quickly.

Firms are changing because of RPA and AI, which means the people inside firms will be impacted and will change, too. Traditionally, for instance, audit teams were comprised of mostly CPAs and, possibly, a few non-CPAs. Today, we are starting to see teams incorporate technologists and data analysts. Client demands are also changing to include requests for more strategic advice, cybersecurity guidance, and client accounting services. Meaning, CPAs will need to learn how to manage and mesh with teams with very different skills, and CPAs will be spending far more time providing valuable analysis and invaluable insight.

So, what should you do?

Adopting new technology obviously presents a wonderful opportunity for CPAs. As technology further automates basic compliance work and functions, CPAs will no longer be burdened with hours of manual computation, testing, and reconciliation. It’ll be smart to begin offering new, high-value services to clients and companies. But, most importantly, we all need to embrace the future of the profession.

My challenge to you is to unlearn your old business practices. Learn new ways of doing business that incorporate emerging and disruptive technologies, like RPA, AI, and blockchain. Throughout history, disruptors have led innovative change. In 2000, Netflix Co-Founder Reed Hastings approached then Blockbuster CEO John Antioco about buying Netflix for $50 million. Antioco reportedly laughed Hastings out of the room. We know how this story ended — Blockbuster has a single store still standing while Netflix has soared to have a $147 billion-plus market cap.

Blockbuster got disrupted. Netflix and Mary T. Washington Wylie were disruptors. We as a profession, individually and collectively, now must decide which turn to take at the crossroads. Will we embrace a brave, new future and become the disruptors, or will we become the next Blockbuster and become the disrupted? If you ask me, there is no choice — CPAs must be the disruptors!