Does the future belong to the specialist?

Magnifying Glass On Cut-out Figures
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Recruitment and skills are perennial issues, and there are few firms who can boast to easily finding the right people - and enough of them.

The recent Accountant of Tomorrow report brought this into sharp relief claiming that “A change in the services and how they are delivered will create a need for staff with different skill sets, such as tech advisory, data analysis, and the ability to present effectively to clients”.

During subsequent Thomson Reuters’ roadshows, panellists including Soaring Falcon Accountants’ Alex Falcon Huerta, Stephen Pell from Pell Artists and Cooper Faure’s Freddie Faure strongly reinforced this as not just an issue for the future, but for now.

Summing up the recruitment task at hand, Falcon Huerta said: “The challenge is finding people who know accounting, can work with the technology, and be very client facing. It’s almost impossible to find all three.”

Pell agreed: “There are two strands – one is finding staff who match our values. And two, are confident in the use of the technology, terminology, and accountancy principles. That’s a lot of boxes to tick, it’s been tricky, and I’ve had to wait 6-9 months to bring someone on.”

And Faure added: “Historically, people were brought in to do a very specific job. Client expectations are so much greater now, and digital is driving this. The demands on us are higher and so our demands on our staff are also high, and they have to have ability to work at that level.”

These factors usually underline the case for bringing in qualified staff, but there seems to be problems in this approach.

Recruiting qualified or experienced accountants

Peter Jarman, the director at Intuit’s 2018 UK Firm of the Future PJCO, underlined the difficulty in recruiting from the existing talent pool but also sounded a new warning: “The ability to move a qualified from one firm to another is very hard, but some post-qualifieds are not getting enough responsibility to warrant their cost. You’re paying for qualification passes, not for the quality and ability to handle responsibility.”

Meanwhile, Faure is seeing an overreliance on tech seeping in. “Freshly qualified accountants are being told that digital will do it for you, and they are not using their knowledge. Staff are not equipped enough to fall back on their skills.”

Which raises the question around whether or not the professional qualifications available have got the balance right yet.

Formal qualifications

Jarman very much values the professional qualification, but recognises gaps opening up. “The curriculum is still probably behind the times, particularly in terms of the cloud side.”

Pell agrees and sees that even with the fundamentals; the mix between core accounting skills and available technology is not being accommodated.

“Formal qualifications need to change – it’s been disappointing,” he said. “AAT is focused on Sage desktop and a bigger chunk of time needs to be set aside to understanding what’s in the marketplace. For example, Receipt Bank now does the job of the bookkeeper, so students need to know this and understand their role is to be even more analytical.”

So, should the focus be back on finding the ‘other’ qualities and supporting qualification?

Bringing on and training your own

For Jarman, moulding his own staff is vital. “Personally I think it’s easier to work with fresh new grads who have no preconceptions or peculiarities picked up from working with others.”

But it does take considerable commitment and trust. “If I can offer the right environment, I tend to be able to get the right grads in who might well have been able to go to the Big Four. But a big part of this is being able to offer a comparable training package, and the promise responsibility from day one. We expect all of our graduates to have a portfolio within three years and probably two,” continued Jarman.

Broadening criteria means Pell is looking for skills in new places. “I’ve just brought on someone with a computer science qualifications and they’re a real gamer. It’s their ability to deconstruct how we do things, and how clients can be served that I need – a way of thinking.”

But it’s not as easy as it sounds. “We tried bringing in staff at grad-level, but it hasn’t worked out so far,” said Faure. “It’s been hard as they aren’t motivated by money, and millennials definitely don’t want to be seen as bums-on-seats. So finding roles they want, with the skills they have, to the demands we have to make of them, is really tricky.”

How do we get the skills needed without going too far and over accommodating?

Is specialising the key?

Another way of considering this is: will it be possible to be a generalist? Or will the evolution of the profession and client demands, mean that further specialisation is needed?

Jarman has already considered this and now operates independent career streams based on different roles, requiring different profiles as well as skills. “One stream is around cloud services and their ACCA contract is centred on management accounts, business apps and cloud accounting, including researching apps, identifying and implementing successfully. They are expected to be more like management accountants and have the transactional tax expertise.

“The second route is down the traditional accounting and tax route, concentrating on year-end and tax. Both have the solid grounding in tax and accounts, it’s just that they specialise in one team or another and develop in different ways.”

Impacting the future

Jarman said the idea of specialisation brings distinct commercial advantages. “I can already see the scope for providing business improvement services for clients. There’s a clear opportunity to develop cloud services departments – with cloud FDs accessing lots of data and information and another department being more aligned to customer services, support and implementation.”

Jarman also predicts that those who choose to specialise will have a competitive advantage. “If I was graduate today, I would choose the cloud service route as there really aren’t that many experienced app skilled integrators and experts out there.”

Pell believes being able to adapt is a key criteria for the future. “I’m trying to recruit people who can change, to shape shift, and don’t want to sit there for 30 years. We are increasingly focused on the customer’s experience, and the tech is constantly evolving to help us do things that make our lives easier and drive better results for our clients. Staying on top of that means no one can sit still.”

So is there a role for the all-round accountant? Faure thinks things will have to look different: “In 2028, the skill challenge will depend on what accountants will be doing, and I think this will be based on what will clients need. Will they be so digitally advanced, that they will be doing much of the work we do now?

"There will be areas where humans will be needed, and these may need to be specialists. Being a true generalist might just be too much to ask.”

About Richard Sergeant

Richard Sergeant

Specialist insight and business development support for accountants and their vendors. Cloud advocate with a pragmatist eye.


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17th Nov 2018 03:06

Since the 1970s computerisation has grown and the in-house accountant has needed to be more of a computer whiz kid than a good accountant. Nowadays you press a button and the figures are produced.
The days of pride and being well attuned to your subject have gone for sure.
In any event the accountancy function and the accountant will always be seen by businesses and entrepreneurs as a cost and necessary evil. Some things never change.

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By SXGuy
17th Nov 2018 15:20

When I started some years ago, I became partnered to someone who had been in practise for 20 years. She had the knowledge but what she lacked was the technical skill to convert that out to computerisation.

Payroll, tax returns, all done by hand. Accounts were done using word. That was the extent of it.

If I hadn't of joined, I doubt she could have continued on as things like rti, online filing, MTDfVat would have been beyond her.

But at the same time, she gave me the ability to do everything by hand and a calculator, so I know what the computer says is right or wrong.

Technology makes life easier but it also removes the need to know how something works, so you rely solely on tech working, when it doesn't always.

As with most exams in life we're taught how to pass them, and not actually learn the fundimentals.

The accounting community really does need to preach these fundimentals because once it's gone, we're left with people who accept calculations on face value, won't scrutinise hmrcs workings, and will just accept whatever they are told.

No creative tax planning will be done.
I could go on but you get my point.

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19th Nov 2018 11:41

I am a pro technology person and I back the move to be more technologically reliant on basic things. I have seen far too many times old accountants boast about how they did everything by hand and the new generation is more or less an idiot and the computer does their job.

I personally think this is they way accountants who are not well versed with technology reassure themselves and try to gain some sense of being the superior class of accountants, whereas all I hear is a similar argument that might have taken place when a calculator was invented. 'I can add by hand quicker and more accurate than newbies' Hurray!!!!! To me doesn't really add value does it. No matter how good you are by hand a calculator will always outgun you.

So with all due respect to the anti technology accountants, we need to realize the dynamics of the changing world and adopt to it if we want to be successful in helping our clients.

Obviously an accountant looking at an excel sheet would be expected to double check the formulas and have cross checks to ensure the excel sheet is working accurately. For example, you would have true/false formulas, plus sum formulas adding columns and rows, so you have three things verifying your workings on just a simple bank analysis. That is far more intelligent use of resources and adding figures on a calculator 10 times and getting a different answer each time.

Similarly an accountant would be expected to know disclosure requirements and would manually be required to apply required disclosures to a given scenario, technology won't do that for you.

So technology is their to help and compliment an accountant and not form an argument of technology vs accountants which I often feel the arguments end up being.

But I can understand the frustration of an accountant who can't even control a mouse and type on a keyboard, to them I say, please retire. This is not your cup of tea.

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20th Nov 2018 10:20

Great article, Richard and it enhances what I have been saying about the widening of differences between "high techies" and "low techies". Although there has always been an element of this in the past, the gap is so wide now (as technology advances at a vast rate of knots) I'm not sure if changing exam criteria will make a lot of difference. I'm not even sure if there should be a forced merge rather than a natural one. Can you merge a Picasso (I don't know any other abstract painters) with a Constable?

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20th Nov 2018 12:30

Good quality article and makes a lot of sense. Technical accounting knowledge, technology and client skills all vital. Training in house ideal. Also agree that the qualification has merits and prestige but needs to be backed up by delivery and results.

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By Dandan
20th Nov 2018 13:15

From your article wrote:

Summing up the recruitment task at hand, Falcon Huerta said: “The challenge is finding people who know accounting, can work with the technology, and be very client facing. It’s almost impossible to find all three.”

How so true . At least my family got the point a long time ago. My brother qualified as an accountant some 25 years ago but makes a living as a systems analyst, being a fully qualified programmer too. He implements systems at banks and hospital. I am an accountant too and have a passion for IT and programming (self-taught in my case).

Not looking for a job here but just making a point that it took some 40 years for accountants to start to realise that they should have developed other skills along with accountancy.

Just like "value pricing", a concept that perhaps 1% of accountants figured out 40 years ago, only now are accountants starting to embrace this concept.

At this rate of progression, does the word "dinosaur" not seem appropriate when looking at the accounting profession.

Mind you , my idea of expanding skills does not mean partnership with IT companies. It means becoming an Accountancy/IT firm.

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to Dandan
20th Nov 2018 13:37

Has it ever occurred to you that some people just want to become Accountants and look after their clients? No of course not because you are one of the "high techies" that doesn't realise that "low techies" should exist. Most Accountants I know do progress and realised perhaps 50 years ago that computers were going to be a thing of the future. A lot of us have seen good changes but there have also been some bad mistakes. IT and Accounting don't always make a perfect marriage (MTD will prove that). Why? because it's not always possible to computerise or whatever a clients records the way it's best for the client to operate. Accounting is not all about "value pricing" etc. If you start thinking like that then you lose sight of what an Accountant is all about. You've only got to look at the state of our banking system to realise what happens when you start meandering.

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By Dandan
to johnjenkins
20th Nov 2018 14:17

I am not really the one you should have a go at. I deplore the fact that very few professionals exist nowadays(both in accountancy and legal firms).

In line with the article on this webpage, I wish for a wider spectrum of staff and will always treasure the existence traditional accountants working alongside me.

What I will not accept is to sell our soul (and spirit of the profession) to cloud companies. We should offer IT services within the firm and not partner with anyone.

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to Dandan
20th Nov 2018 14:33

You're the one that said Accountants "should" develop other skills. Why? There is no need. Unfortunately some marketing people have thought up all these "buzz words" to tell us we have to do this or that. The Accountancy world will progress as it always has and the pace that is right for the client. Some clients want the all singing, all dancing, top of the range Accountancy/IT services. Some don't. MTD is a classic example of how Accountants and clients are "pushed" into technology that they do not require and is costly. Just watch how it collapses. A lot of people have compared it with SA. The big difference is SA didn't rely on technology, MTD does.

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to johnjenkins
20th Nov 2018 15:44

MTD will not collapse. Yes there will be hiccups, big ones. It's a really big change, there will be a lot of changes and developments to softwares and programs as it goes live and that is expected.

Failure would be if MTD goes live one year and the next year HMRC comes back to say no more MTD, which in my opinion is highly unlikely to happen.

And yes accountants in the 21st Century are expected to have novice IT skills, such as using a computer, running an accounting software and being able to search for answers to accounting problems quickly on the internet rather than refer to a text published in Year 2000 that is outdated.

I do however agree MTD adds extra work for no reason which is a nuisance.

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to Mukkarram Ali
21st Nov 2018 13:17

The reason why MTD will collapse is because HMRC are trying to bring it in and change the way small business operates in a short space of time. This should have been a 10 to 15 year project. OK big business is already there and have been for many years, but the small business will never be able to cope (which is the whole idea to get small business on PAYE). We are now looking at 2020 before MTD is properly implemented. It wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't put back until after the next general election.

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to johnjenkins
21st Nov 2018 14:37

I do agree that MTD is a an extra burden on very small businesses for no reason.

I also agree there are possibilities that it could be delayed for another year or two but eventually it will happen and it won't collapse. Delay does not mean collapse.

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to Mukkarram Ali
21st Nov 2018 15:02

I agree delay does not necessarily mean collapse. However in the case of MTD that's exactly what it means. MTD for the under £85k small business was supposed to commence 1/4/2018. At the very earliest it will now be 2020. There is no possible way that HMRC will be able to get most small business to submit quarterly accounts (oops sorry updates) as well as have access to every business transaction (that's what MTD is all about) within the time scale (if at all) set. I'm not even sure that having access to every business transaction without opening an investigation is legal. No doubt someone will put me right on that. The only thing we will have at 1/4/19 is submission of the same VAT figures using costly software, attached to an API, which may or may not accept or reject the figures. Yer that's progress for you. So by April 2020 it will all be scrapped and we await with baited breath on HMRC's next quest to destroy the small business.

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to johnjenkins
21st Nov 2018 17:31

Both VAT and SA are running live on MTD at the moment.

Delay is not in the availability of the service, delay is in it becoming a mandatory medium of submission.

Not all softwares are costly and for MTD VAT you don't even need a software. You can even use an add-on to your existing excel sheet to enable API compatibility. Having said that, I believe excel add-on might just be a temporary fix because as SA and CT MTD go live, you're bound to switch to an accounting software, unless some other add-ons become available.

I think a lot of ifs and buts will automatically resolve as both accountants and HMRC begin using the system.

I would use myself as an example, even though both services are available, our firm has not done anything to prepare itself for MTD. It is beginning to now, but if it had acted proactively in the past then I believe by implementation date we would have been much better equipped than now.

I don't mean to dismiss your opinion altogether. I would just like you to understand that it's not a lost cause. This was bound to happen, sooner or later, especially if blockchain becomes a every household thing in the future.

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to Mukkarram Ali
22nd Nov 2018 08:55

Out of all business do you know what percentage are using the pilots? Miniscule.
As for cost, you missed out training and or extra Accountancy fees. MTD will not come cheap.
My view on anything is that if the concept is wrong it won't work. IR35 is a classic. The whole concept is wrong so it doesn't work. OK HMRC have had a few successes but nothing like they thought would happen. It's now totally defunct (even though HMRC still won't get rid of it). AE, deemed as a success but how many employees will actually put money into it and what happens when the employers say "sorry no money in the pot to pay your pension contributions so your pay is being reduced". Don't get me wrong I love technology but not when it's forced upon you.
Just how many people know about "blockchain"? I see bitcoin not doing too well. What about all the e-commerce, .com's etc. that have gone bust? The inventor of the internet saying it's not good. No, technology enhancement is not always a good thing and to have it forced upon you is even worse. MTD will crash - trust me, I'm an Accountant.

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