Am I an asset, or am I just OpEx?

Discussing Ideas Against an Information Wall
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Kevin Philips ponders the existential crisis the changing workplace presents accountants, and how they can adapt to meet it head-on.

“Am I an asset to my company? Or am I ….” The audience of accountants collectively inhaled, wondering if the attendee asking the question was going to go there. “Or am I just OpEx?” he asked, neatly sidestepping saying the word “liability”.

Only an accountant could have summed up the existential crisis that we are all probably experiencing around our role in the workplace in this way. The question came up during our recent annual user conference in Cape Town, South Africa. The general theme of the conference was how transformed budgeting and reporting processes can help companies adapt quickly to constant and rapid change. This specific question was raised during a lively presentation and Q&A session with Sameer Rawjee, the founder of Google’s Life Design Lab, and currently working with companies and schools to tackle continuous learning and purpose at work.

And it’s an interesting and useful question. Plus a very valid one. My view is that on day one of our jobs, we are all assets to our company: that is why we were employed in the first place. But, just like when you drive that brand new car out of the showroom and into the street, we start depreciating every day. However, and continuing the analogy, in the same way that you can give that car a lick of paint, replace the tyres or put in leather seats to prevent its value falling (or maybe even increase it), we can ensure our own worth, and the worth of the people around us, staying relevant in an ever-changing world and perhaps even increasing our value in the process.

This non-linear career path is a sign of the times. Previously, accountants especially were onto a pretty sure thing: a predictable career path where hard work and experience progressed you along the ranks. And your skills remained relevant from the very first day till the day you rode off into the retirement sunset. Sure, you got better at what you did, you might specialise in a certain area, or you might encounter unusual jobs that gave you unique experience, but fundamentally the role stayed the same.

Today, the world is different and the saying “the only constant today is change” is very much relevant. Add to that, there is the very real chance that machines or artificial intelligence (AI) could take over parts of our roles, disrupting them by doing them better, faster and more accurately. Where does that leave us as the employees?

I’ve said this before, but Darwin nailed it when he identified adaptability as the key to survival. Never before has this been truer, and the need to adapt is over a shorter time frame than ever before. And, if companies and their people adopt the right mindset, this offers immense opportunity for all.

Individuals will need to constantly reinvent themselves, learn continuously and move fast. And the place to start looking is at what sets your passions alight and can’t be done by artificial intelligence, and, if you can find some overlap here then you may well be onto a winner. Individuals who do not are depreciating at an ever-increasing rate. And we know what happens to a fully depreciated, redundant asset: it gets replaced.

Companies, inevitably, will need to spend some of those savings and increased earnings brought about by digitalisation’s greater efficiencies and productivity on helping their people learn. In the same way that businesses have an imperative to digitalise in order to survive, they have a moral obligation to their people to help them adapt to these changes.

During a recession mindset, as we are experiencing now around the world, business leaders might be tempted to save by not investing in training and ongoing learning. In addition, much of what your people might need to learn are the so-called “soft skills” (a far better term is essential skills, in my opinion) which have typically been neglected partly because they are so hard to measure and grade in the formal learning system.

But retraining your people makes good business sense as well. For AI to be effective, it needs to work well with people. And as AI gains new capabilities, people need to keep shifting to the next area of competency that AI has not yet reached.

The ideal version of this scenario is where people keep moving into spaces that they love, doing things that they enjoy and create meaning for them. And that these new skills and capabilities align with progressing the goals of the company.

For this to happen, responsibility needs to be shared. Individuals must identify their areas of ongoing learning, and companies need to ensure that everyone is very clear about the business’s vision, goals and plans, so that the two can align.

Just like my advice to canvass the grassroots of your organisation during the budget process, especially during tough times, it’s the people on the ground who know what they need to learn to remain relevant, and happy, in their roles. They may not always get it right but it is the role of management to guide them and help them align their goals with what the company needs to survive and grow. 

And then, there is no doubt that you, and your people, are true assets, constantly appreciating, and continuously adding value in ever-changing times. And never becoming expenses, or worse, liabilities.

About Kevin Phillips

Kevin Philips IDU

Kevin is the founder and CEO of idu Software. He has degrees in Commerce and Accounting, and started idu with partners James Smith and Wayne Claassen in 1998. Kevin is fast becoming a thought leader in his field, and makes regular comment in the media about current affairs affecting business, as well as accounting, finance, budgeting and software. He is a columnist for Accountancy South Africa and Tech Leader, and has been featured in Sunday Times, Business Day, Enterprise Risk, Succeed and Entrepreneur. He is also a guest speaker on Radio 702, Kaya FM and Summit TV. 

About IDU

Established in 1998, IDU was created by accountants and financial systems specialists to deliver smart software solutions for budgeting and financial reporting across all standard ERP and financial systems. The flagship product, idu-Concept, is specifically designed to overcome issues that get in the way of effective budgeting, forecasting and reporting.

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