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Future of the professions 2: Daniel v the lions

9th Aug 2016
Editor in Chief (interim) AccountingWEB
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Future of the Professions panel, Sage Summit, July 2016
Sage Summit_AccountingWEB
Future of the Professions panel, Sage Summit, July 2016

John Stokdyk reports on an encounter at the recent Sage Summit between ‘Future of the Professions’ author Daniel Susskind and six leading US practice development experts.

The Future of the Professions’, which paints a gloomy picture for eight professions that will be severely disrupted by artificial intelligence and automation in the next decade or so, has been causing ripples around the world since it was published earlier this year.

Father and son academics Richard and Daniel Susskind are regular fixtures on the international conference circuit, where masochistic professionals can’t get enough of the message that their jobs are about to be swept away by supercomputers and bots.

Daniel was on fine form at the end of July, when he spent the afternoon with 200 accountants and bookkeepers at the Sage Summit in Chicago. After presenting his initial findings, Susskind took part in an hour-long debate with some of the leading lights of on the US accountancy scene (pictured sitting above L-R, with Susskind second from right):

  • Ron Baker, author of ‘Implementing Value Pricing’ and founder of the Versage Institute
  • Gary Boomer, “Visionary and strategist” for Boomer Consulting.
  • Garry Carter, chief executive of the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers
  • William Nahum, French accountant and founder/chairman of the 65,000-strong L’Académie des Sciences et Techniques Comptables et Financières.
  • Doug Sleeter, founder of The Sleeter Group
  • Joe Woodard, Insightful Accountant publisher and host of the Scaling New Heights conference

To recap, the basic premise of ‘The Future of the Professions’ is that technology is being adopted within accountancy in two ways. The most immedatiate impact sees tech helping accountants to become more effective at what they currently do.

In the second scenario, technology is going beyond that. Accounting functions are moving away from bespoke services and being broken down into discrete tasks and activities. As more powerful machine-learning systems are applied to these tasks, computers will take on more and more of that workload.

“For now and in the mid-term we believe the two futures will develop in parallel. But in the long-term, the second future will dominate, and there will be a gradual dismantling of traditional professions," Susskind said.

His advice to concerned accountants was to start with a blank piece of paper and ask yourself how you could do things differently.

“Explore new roles and skills and capabilities and how you can learn them,” he told the Chicago audience. “Most importantly, change your mindset, always ask what part of my work can be undertaken alternatively. You can do things the way you always have done them, but you will be disappointed. Or you can be agnostic on how you solve a problem and think of alternatives.”

Agility trumps ability

As forward thinkers, most of the panellists were receptive to Susskind’s warnings and urged accountants to listen and adapt to his arguments.

“The drumbeat of technology is something that has been going on in our whole lives,” Sleeter told the audience. “If you don’t remain agile to new ways, you’ll be left behind. Agility trumps ability.”

Ron Baker, a long-time challenger of professional habits, was even more enthusiastic: “I love ‘The Future of Professions’. I do believe we’re entering a post-professional society. Professionals certainly won’t be 100% displaced, but they’ll shrink, because a lot of what they do can be turned over to IBM Watson and other deep learning systems and other embedded platforms and I think that will be great for society.”

Both Baker and Joe Woodard gave little succour to those who feared for the impact of automation on accounting jobs. What was more important for them was how you measured the profession’s output and effectiveness.

“Inevitably there will be a displacement of those roles through automation and artificial intelligence,” Woodard said. “This will force the profession to deliver the things computers cannot do. They will purify our profession by taking things over - clients won’t pay for the knowledge in our heads.”

Instead, he saw the profession returning to its original calling where accountants are paid to serve humanity with their intellectual capital. “The thing to protect is our clients, not our profession,” Woodard continued. “If supporting small business is to disrupt the profession, so be it. Meet the needs of small business and we’ll figure out how to adapt.”

The pricing debate

One of the first questions for the panel concerned how the rise of automation would affect pricing within the profession. Would a shift from the billable hour to value-based pricing mitigate the effects, the questioner asked. In a surprise twist, he excluded Ron Baker, the great champion of value pricing, from the question as he had heard what he had to say before.

More jibes came Baker’s way from ICB president  Garry Carter, who said the issue had regularly been raised among bookkeepers, many of whom had adopted a payment by instalment model where the costs were amortised over the period of the engagement. “Ron comes up with marvellous name for it and it becomes a fashion,” he said.

“What you have got to do is provide a new service, whether you charge for that service by hour, week, fixed fee or whatever calculation. You’ve got to get a computer to do the work of an accountant. OK - we’ve got to do a job as professionals to persuade businesses not to see accountants as an anvil around our neck, but one of the most important tools of making a business successful.

“This is why we’re winning out at my level of profession, because we’re there day in, day out. We have a great relationship with clients. We don’t see them once a quarter.”

When he did get a chance to fight his corner, Baker was uncompromising: “The bottom line is if we’re moving into the cloud and we’re able to do more work in less time, you better move away from the billable hour otherwise your revenue and profits will shrink. Pricing happens after you create value. If you're not creating value good pricing isn’t helping you, because your customers won’t see the value and won’t pay. You have to be innovative and know what clients want at a deep level. You can’t do those things if you’re focusing on billable hours.”

Trust and the human touch

Bringing a Francophone perspective to the Anglo-American dialogue, William Nahum played the “market will decide” card but also invoked one of the key arguments professionals use to counter the Susskind argument - the human factor.

“What is the market looking for and what is the speed of consumer adaptation and demand?” he asked. “The profession, we can change. It’s our jobs, it’s our revenue - we’ve got to change. But what if the market says it is not ready? They say, ‘We want you. We want a human being.’”

Gary Boomer agreed: “You can’t teach the relationship part.” Adapting to technological change has always been a challenge for professionals. The best way to respond was by being complete person, committed to life-long learning, he said.

But Susskind had heard the objections before, and not just from accountants. Professionals often explain the importance of interpersonal skills to the work they do, and that automation can’t do away with that.

“They are arguments from hard cases - the problem least likely to be solved by automation,” Susskind said. “You do lots of things in your job. Face-to-face may be part of it, but it’s only part. It’s not the only thing you do.”

The market would drive change, he agreed, but challenged the other panellists on whether the recipients of accounting services really wanted interpersonal, face-to-face contact. “I question whether the next generation of people reared on screens will demand that,” he argued.

On the issue of trust, Joe Woodard thought the answer Susskind’s challenge was to “stop asking the question what computers can’t do that humans can and ask instead, what will people insist humans do that computers can’t?”

But even here, Susskind cited Joseph Eisenbaum’s research that showed that some people were more comfortable confiding in anonymous expert systems than humans. And in another blow against the profession’s inflated self-image, he pointed out that most accountants struggled with even the most basic task of filling out a timesheet accurately.

“It’s a mistake to believe professions have a monopoly or are uniquely placed to attain trustworthiness. Is it trust, or is it reliability? In a world with technology, there may be other ways to apply trustworthiness,” he said.

Fighting the last war?

Gary Boomer pointed out during the conversation that accountancy had already changed from the traditional, partner-led model and become a team sport marked by diversity and a new balance between the genders. Then a participant from the audience pointed out that seven middle-aged white guys were on stage, while a majority of those in the audience and the wider profession were female.

After the session, ‘The Radical CPA’ author Jody Padar told AccountingWEB she was unmoved by the comments from the panellists. After hearing Garry Carter’s observations on the superior numbers and skills of female bookkeepers, she likened him to “the Donald Trump of bookkeeping”.

The panellists came from a generation that prospered during the PC revolution and was now switching horses to cloud-based practice models. Rather than talking about it at conferences, her virtual firm included a strong contingent of women who were doing things the experts talked about. “We’re living it,” she said.

To give Susskind the final word, he agreed that we’re beginning to see the emergence of people and institutions who have very little regard for the way professions have traditionally behaved, whether it’s pricing, or face-to-face contact. “We’re fortunate. We should be excited about using technology to solve problems and make the solutions more affordable.”

Replies (18)

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By Manek Affilica
09th Aug 2016 12:23

Such crystal ball gazing is fine but it is more valuable to me to read a discussion that is survey based. Data collection and its logging continues to be automated with improving software. We see bank transactions being linked to account headings to produce draft trail balance and financial statements. However, accountants can remain a required professional only if they have the interpersonal skills to carry out the age old functions of recruiting entrepreneurs as new clients, understanding their requirements and delivering valuable solutions to them, all without presenting themselves as stand-alone operators. Jaffer Manek, Affilica International

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By FirstTab
09th Aug 2016 13:15

Let a small group of middle aged men continue with their predictions, most of it, I have heard before, years ago.

I will carry on building my practice by listening to my clients (and potential clients) rather than change is coming merchants.

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Locutus of Borg
By Locutus
09th Aug 2016 23:54

We have been told for years by gurus that our jobs are going to be disappearing imminently. Over the past 5 years Bob pops up to remind us of this.

Over my working life, I have witnessed a massive increase in computerisation in the workplace, the emergence of the internet and cloud computing. These have all had massive changes on the way I and other accountants work.

Yet, in spite of all this automation, I am busier than ever and expect to be for the foreseeable future.

If something does change in the immediate future that removes my conventional ability to earn an income, then I will just adapt to it as I have done computerisation, the internet and cloud computing.

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Replying to Locutus:
By Jonathan D
01st Nov 2017 12:22

...too busy to read these marketing drives? That's all they are. The "professional is going the tube" doomsayers all have one agenda; to make money by scaring us out of our wits 10 years too soon. A lot of it.
All of us have adapted to technology before, at the same time as the market has. What drives change in market demand is not technology. The client couldn't care less how we do it. I speak to domestic and international clients every day. When we started in 2014 we boasted ourselves as "cloud-based" blah blah. Then after many conversations with new prospects, I realised that no one really cares besides me and the client doesn't mind me increasing my margins through intelligent software as long as I deliver on what really matters to them.
So let's all carry on and not cry over milk that probably won't spill.

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By KWest
10th Aug 2016 07:35

Automating bookkeeping, forecasting and communications apart I fail to see how features such as the cloud can represent an apocalyptic threat. Virtually anything connected with business practice, taxation and company law is open to interpretation something even the most powerful systems are yet to understand.

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By MM Bookkeeping Services
10th Aug 2016 10:40

Any of you read Investment Counselor by Orson Scott Card?
Maybe this fiction is going to become reality?

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By sarah douglas
10th Aug 2016 15:02

Double posted - Sorry

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By sarah douglas
10th Aug 2016 15:00

Garry Carter is right about valued pricing. This year alone as a practice we have picked up some great clients who want to pay hourly we also have clients on fixed and value pricing. Does Ron think clients are stupid? A savvy client can work out how long he thinks it should take you and work out the hourly rate you are charging for his overheads. You set the rate and the client decides if he is getting the value or not.

The idea that you are not getting a good rate hourly is not right in fact sometimes it works out better in cases. In our experience those clients who pay hourly seem to interact with you more. Many of our clients are already on the cloud and this allows us to spend more time helping them understand the Profit Loss and Balance Sheet so they can make decisions. What Ron Baker is missing Is that your clients are not accountants, they are exceptionally good at their own job.

I can only speak for Glasgow, but this year we have seen a large increase in clients wanting to have meetings face to face. I would say 50 percent of our clients are on the cloud. We are a holding hand service. So many of our clients have said they want to see their accountant and bookkeeper more not less.

We have an open office policy so many of our clients pop in to see us if they are near. If we are with clients, they will not come in. Some even send us a text and ask if they can come over on the day if we are free. They know it is not possible all the time, but they know are welcome and we want to hear from them. We even had a client recently who signed up for our auto enrolment service which was a good one to get and we gave them an Ice Pop and cup of tea. Ron Baker is missing the fact that we are human. I am pretty sure some of my clients are having a break but 9 times out of 10 the chat leads to other business. I think the idea of you becoming so important that you no longer what to see your clients because everything is on the cloud is more likely to lose you clients in future. I am not knocking the cloud as I think they go hand in hand with efficiency. Why spend all that time marketing when potentially the new business is actually with your current clients.

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Replying to sarah douglas:
By verasage
10th Aug 2016 15:38

Sarah, I'm not sure why you think I would think customers are stupid, or are accountants? I advocate 100% price certainty, payment terms, and a value guarantee, all agreed to upfront, the way you and I purchase everything else in our lives. Your customers don't buy your time, they buy outcomes, which is what being a professional is all about. And I'm not sure why you think I believe we aren't humans? My views are well documented, based on empirical evidence on real humans, and I would add, Garry Carter doesn't understand Value Pricing.

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Replying to verasage:
By sarah douglas
10th Aug 2016 20:21

I think you will find that Garry does understand Value Pricing, if you look at ICB website you will see they have promoted Cloud pricing -value pricing and run seminars for the members. Garry has always given his members the opportunity to learn more about value pricing. Value pricing has been covered in detail at the ICB inspire tour around the UK and is heavily promoted at the ICB summit this year in Oct as an option for the members to consider.

The fact is you can do all 3 which we do. Why on earth would you turn away lucrative clients who want to pay a good hourly rate. The fact is that some business wants to pay by the hour that is their choice not to go fixed. We over both options some business work better with fixed pricing and some do not. It is based on the owner of the business and how the business relationship develops. I think you will find as a practice like many others who charge hourly rates are just as professional as your good self.

If they do not see value in what you are doing they will let you know very quickly, any good accountant or bookkeeper who knows their client will not run up bills without discussing it with the client.

I have no problem with Value Pricing I admire those who have been successful with it, but I really do object to the attitude that those who do not agree are the plebs of the accounting and bookkeeping profession. Some of the Value Pricing marketing ( not all) is very questionable.

In relation to the human comment this is about cloud software. Whilst I do think there are lots of benefits of the cloud, not seeing your clients on a regular basis is not one of them as you are potentially losing business and opportunities with your current clients. Not all things in life are based on fixed price.

It is up to the client if they want to go to the practice with a fixed price they will. At the end of the day not so much in producing accounts for company’s house, but in some cases not all, the bookkeeping can be how long is a piece of string.

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Replying to sarah douglas:
By verasage
10th Aug 2016 18:38

That's confusing marketing to use three different pricing strategies. A brand can only stand for one thing. You can't sell Rolls Royces and Chevys out of the same dealership. Why would you want to allow hourly pricing if you agree that customers want a price upfront, no surprises, and that you are a professional who is responsible for an outcome, not delivering a series of tasks?

Cloud software is no replacement for a relationship, and I have never said otherwise. Technology is a table stake, like having restrooms. It's not a competitive advantage because your competition can use it as well. This is a relationship business, no matter how good technology gets. I just think technology will displace more and more of the things we do, which is what this article is discussing--the Daniel Susskind book's premise. Garry has never read my book on Value Pricing, nor anyone else's from what he told me, so I stand by my statement.

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Replying to verasage:
By sarah douglas
10th Aug 2016 19:00

Firstly in my original response I was responding to the article. I respect your opinion that you disagree with different prices, but with the greatest respect that is your opinion as a practice we are well respected by our clients.

It is not exactly rocket science hourly rates are really quite simple fill in your calendar and link it to your accounts system, fixed pricing sign up clients very quickly using go cardless and recurring invoices, projects and high value set up dd using Go cardless again. From our experience the clients who pay hourly interact on a much greater basis and do tend to give your practice far more work as other projects progress, which in the long run saves you time on wasted marketing and time. Our clients are given the option it is their choice. The same as we give are clients the option about software. It is the spice of life, that is my point not all clients want the same thing we work with them so they are happy clients not on the basis that everything fits into the same box.

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Replying to sarah douglas:
By verasage
10th Aug 2016 19:04

It's not my opinion, it's based on empirical evidence. The most profitable professional firms in the world, bar none, do not utilize hourly billing. Value Pricing prices the customer, not the services, so it is the ultimate in customization and offering choices to each and every customer. Hourly billing is the antithesis of customization, and squeezes everyone into the same box. But I'm not here to convince you otherwise. If the empirical evidence can't do it, I stand no chance.

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Replying to verasage:
By sarah douglas
10th Aug 2016 19:48

I am always open to discussion but as I said I live in Glasgow and a lot of businesses charge hourly rates. I am not saying I love them by any means but the simple fact is I am not about to turn down lucrative contracts because they do not want a fixed price. I am a business woman and you may be right but at the end of the day it is very good money and till that is not the case I will not be refusing clients who want to pay hourly.

I am more interested in loving my job and who I work with, many businesses run their business the way they do because of various issues, it could be family , health. I will agree if you were running a larger practice then yes you would have to streamline more as it would become very difficult. If that was the case then of course you would re look at all your options.

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By sarah douglas
10th Aug 2016 15:37

‘The Radical CPA’ author Jody Padar told AccountingWEB she was unmoved by the comments from the panellists. After hearing Garry Carter’s observations on the superior numbers and skills of female bookkeepers, she likened him to “the Donald Trump of bookkeeping”.

I find this quite rude and offensive by Jody.
I am going to stick up for Garry Carter here. Garry is a very strong believer in promoting bookkeeping as professional service. He is and has been a great promoter of women and men in the work place. My business would not be were it is today with out the promotion Garry has done for bookkeepers. For years he has always visited every part of the UK to promote bookkeepers and has grown the Bookkeepers Summit year after year at the Queen Elizabeth Centre in London. They are so many successful practices across the UK and many of them are my competition and collaborators when looking after clients.

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Replying to sarah douglas:
By Jodypadarcpa
14th Aug 2016 15:29


I'm sure Garry has helped many bookeepers. However he specifically stated in a demoralizing way that females were "better" at bookkeeping and inferring that they were not capable of more. The room gasped! It may or may not have been what he meant but it was certainly inappropriate for the crowd he was speaking to. I respect bookkeepers but as the CEO of a CPA firm that is not an acceptable comment and should rightly be called out on his comment.

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By johnjenkins
15th Aug 2016 08:29

Number crunching has always been a "part" of the Accountants function but a computer, cloud, bank streaming, whatever, will not interpret that information into useful information that forms Accountant - client relationships.
It doesn't matter how you price your work. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
As a side, how are sage getting on with their "little" problem? Just shows how good theses computer based systems can really be.

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By AndrewV12
19th Nov 2016 14:52

I dont think the above will effect small clients, but it could effect medium to large clients.

Small clients are happy to leave everything to their Accountant and do as little as possible. medium and large clients could buy into the above.

As for computers, remember using Accountancy software etc has not reduced Accountancy bills, Accountancy software is expensive, Accountants are willing to pay for it as it prepares good quality accounts and saves time when preparing Accounts.
No savings are passed on to the client.

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