The accountancy profession is going through a huge shift, and there is growing clamour for big data experts that can use new tools and techniques to give their clients a clearer picture of their financial records.
There are many benefits of using big data analytics, but as with any sea change, there is bound to be some scepticism, as Bob Dohrer, RSM’s global leader for quality and risk, explained.
“Experienced people within the firm can be sceptical about the use of these new techniques, but at a very high level I think the most successful firms are those that will carve out a [big data] space in the profession; they will be the ones where the tone at the top is open minded and encouraging of exploration and advances in the area,” he said.
Once those at the top of the organisation in question decide that they want to make better use of data, they need to get existing employees on board.
For EY, this meant a change management process which asked its 80,000 auditors whether they were comfortable moving from what was a ‘traditional audit approach’ to a new one based on analysing whole population sets and using analytics to drive the audit.
“This means proving to our auditors what the difference between the old and new ways are, and why we encouraged the use of an analytics-driven approach,” Hermann Sidhu, EY’s global digital leader explained.
He likened the shift to that from using paper to Microsoft Excel.
“It took a long time for that shift to happen, so it is a matter of confidence; once there are success stories, better audit results and clients coming back to say ‘this is fantastic’, there will be more confidence in the area,” said Sidhu.
But perhaps the hardest part of this process is hiring the talent with the appropriate skill set.
Dohrer suggested that one of the biggest changes in how RSM hired talent was less of an emphasis on accounting education and more on the ability of new hires to “think more freely about how things happen in the world”.
“It’s a broad sweeping statement, but it’s looking for people with a mindset to look at how any decision has evolved, how the result of the decision was based on a variety of inputs and causal factors leading up to it, and the ability to really question why those things happen – I think that’s the future of auditing,” Dohrer stated.
And that isn’t entirely different to the DNA of an auditor; the ability to interrogate, look for anomalies and patterns is something they already do.
More data scientists
But data-savvy auditors are just one part of the recruitment drive – the harder part is hiring candidates with skills in data science – a more technical specialism.
“Data scientists can look at all sorts of reasons why financial transactions may have occurred or may have been accounted for – but it is honestly a waste of time and resources if there is not a set of people who are able to look at those hypotheses and determine which ones are reasonable and worth pursuing – they need the ability to look at correlation and effect,” said Dohrer.
The ideal scenario is to pair many of these skills with those of an auditor – first in a combined team of data scientists and auditors, and perhaps in the future, data science would become part of an auditor’s repertoire.
“If you pair an auditors’ skill set with the ability to understand data, understand how to capture it and how to manipulate and visualise that data then you have an extremely powerful skill set and team,” said Sidhu.
“Historically the firm has hired from auditors that have accounting backgrounds but in the future – and we’re already seeing it now – we’ll have more data scientists and mathematicians being part of the team, the question is how we manage that with our core auditors to create that compelling ‘auditor of the future’,” he stated.
What makes hiring talent with the more technical skill set harder – even for the biggest accountancy firms – is that it isn’t an area for which they’re renowned. Data scientists are wanted at the biggest technology companies and in various other industries too and this is compounded by the fact that a data science skill set is a rarity, as Sidhu said “there are not thousands of data scientists running around that we can hire”.
He suggested that accounting firms focus on making sure there is a career path for data scientists within the organisation to make sure they can compete against other types of organisations.
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About Sooraj Shah
Sooraj is a freelance technology journalist covering all things IT.