Be the Disruptor, Not the Disrupted
CPAs must rethink what they do, how they do it, and who does it.
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!