While many finance professionals are feeling uncertain about their role in a digital future, one thing is certain: That future is already here, and, like it or not, finance professionals need to start taking action to adapt, said Coenie Middel, founder and chairman of Middel & Partners Chartered Accountants, an accounting and consulting firm based in South Africa.
Speaking Thursday at the CGMA Africa Conference 2019: Finance Transformation in the Digital World, Middel offered a practical guide for management accountants and finance professionals who are looking to adjust to the new realities of a world in which most accounting tasks will be — or already are — automated.
“In a time of digital transformation, most financial professionals are very confused about what to do next,” Middel said in an interview prior to the conference. “If we agree that financial professionals’ roles are going to change, we have to have a structured way of getting to the end goal.”
The new financial professional will use tools and technologies to predict the future rather than reporting the past, according to Middel. This change requires a significant shift in the mindset and in the skills that financial professionals will need. They will need to broaden their horizons to better understand trends and markets, deepen their observational skills, and improve their people and communication skills — all while steadily improving their practical problem-solving skills.
But instead of focusing on the technology itself, Middel wrestles with a different, more human question, one that lingers and nags at many finance professionals.
“How do you make the transition into this new world of finance?” he asked.
To address that question, Middel offered the following framework, based on a 20-week course for change that he has developed for finance professionals to become more “future fit” as the accounting profession changes.
The assignment. According to Middel, the first question a finance professional who is looking to adapt a more future-forward mindset must ask is: Do I need to innovate myself?
“I would find it very surprising if the accountant said no,” he said.
For Middel, the question isn’t rhetorical. It is a guiding principle, and he suggests that accountants write down the reasons they need to change, whether it be shifting market conditions, technological advances that are transforming the profession, or career ambition. Be clear, concise, and comprehensive with the reasons for your change because it will guide the second stage of this process, setting goals around your motivations.
Use the reasons you need to change to find your goals. If the market is shifting, perhaps you need to explore new possibilities. If technology is impacting your role, maybe learning new tech skills is in order. If you want to advance your career, finding networking opportunities is key, according to Middel.
“What you are doing is saying, ‘I need to create this journey for myself, and this is how it would work,’” said Middel.
Observe and learn. Once you’ve determined why you need to change, and where you want to take yourself, then it is time to start investigating challenges and opportunities, Middel said. Start talking to people — other finance professionals, experts, and outsiders — about the professional and business landscape, now and in the future.
Start exploring ways that technology is affecting finance and what companies are expecting from technology. Look for opportunities to talk with people outside of finance to broaden your perspective and break down the silos that are often created within the profession.
One of the key takeaways from this part of the process is a better understanding of people, trends, and markets, according to Middel, and that understanding creates an opening for growth.
“If you find out what the needs are and what the technology is going to do, then you can come up with what we call ‘innovation opportunities’,” he said.
Brainstorm and pitch. After you’ve set goals and explored the challenges and opportunities available, it’s time to start generating active ideas, according to Middel.
“Once you have an idea of what the future needs are going to be, and how technology will interact with those needs, then you can come up with ideas of how you are going to do it,” he said.
He recommended a wide-ranging brainstorming process that doesn’t dismiss any ideas. Be creative when looking for ideas that combine your goals with the reality of the marketplace, and give yourself the chance to be broad. If you want a new technology competency, think about enrolling in a class. Attend more cultural events if you want to expand your horizons. Offer to take on a new role for six months if you want to learn the business better.
But once you’ve gone through the brainstorming process raising many ideas, narrow to six to ten ideas and start talking to people about the possibilities. Ask your manager for feedback on several of the ideas. Consult with experts about the feasibility of your selected ideas. Check out logistical hurdles to eliminate impractical ideas. Ask for support and permission on the most solid idea.
Once you’ve consulted with as many stakeholders as necessary, you should have one or two solid, achievable projects that address the need for change that have buy-in from your company.
This, in the final tally, is how you become future fit, according to Middel.
“Now you have your plan for how you, as a financial professional, are going to tackle the future,” said Middel. “You’ve got clear direction, and you’ve set yourself up for the next ten years.”
— Drew Adamek is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.