How technology is changing the way CPAs work 

Here’s an overview of the tech-inspired changes—from working remotely to data analysis—that young CPAs are seeing in the profession right now. 
by Frank Vinluan 
Published October 20, 2015

How technology is changing the way CPAs workIf you want to find out where Justin O’Horo, a graduate of the AICPA’s 2009 Leadership Academy, is based, don’t look at his business card. O’Horo, CPA/CITP, a partner at WithumSmith+Brown, no longer lists an address on his business cards, explaining that the only address that matters is the email address. With a mobile phone and a laptop, he can access files via the internet and communicate with clients from just about anywhere.
 
O’Horo’s mobile work habits are representative of changes sweeping the accounting profession in recent years as technology gives practitioners new ways to work. Cloud-based software enables CPAs to obtain and share information remotely, and in real time, while the proliferation of Big Data gives them greater access to information. Accordingly, new software tools are emerging to help CPAs manage and draw insight from data.

Going mobile

The mobility that technology brings allows firms to become more flexible in how they manage staff accountants. In years past, firms held fast to billable hours, setting targets and directing CPAs as to what their hours would be. But O’Horo sees more variation in working conditions now. Firms still set targets, but they aren’t hung up on clock-in and clock-out times—as long as they get the work done in a manner in line with client expectations.

“You can now define the parameters of how you work,” O’Horo said. “I think that’s more attractive to everybody, but particularly younger people.”
 
Lynda Schwartz, CPA/CFF, CGMA, with Upland Advisory, recalls that just a few years ago, experienced practitioners fretted when they noticed young professionals communicating with clients by text message or email instead of speaking with them in person. But she notes that, these days, electronic communication is the primary means of communications for some practitioners, and their clients.
 
Communication technology not only changes how practitioners talk to their clients, it also changes how practitioners work with each other. David Zweighaft, CPA/CFF, CFE, managing director at DSZ Forensic Accounting & Consulting Services, said that collaborative software allows remote practitioners to work on projects with their peers as a team. The collective knowledge is better than the knowledge of an individual working alone, and the software makes the work more efficient, he said.

Perhaps the biggest change affecting the accounting profession is the rise of Big Data. More data is being produced and used in more settings, and vast amounts of data can be accessed even by small organizations, Zweighaft said. This is particularly important in areas such as forensic accounting, where CPAs are trying to sort through terabytes of data in an effort to uncover evidence of fraud.

“We’re still looking for needles,” Zweighaft said. “The issue is that the number of haystacks is multiplying.”

The sophistication of Big Data analytics has a consequence: “The era of sampling is ending,” Schwartz said. “Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement, for example, now looks at whole data sets rather than samples. That means auditors and managers need to be comfortable with whole data sets, and using new tools, such as visualization software, to analyze data. Over the next 10 years, this kind of analysis will become commonplace,” she said.
 
Companies have been drawing real-time insights from data for some time, but what’s changing is the prevalence of this practice. A few short years ago, data analytics was leading edge, Schwartz said; now, the analysis of Big Data sets is common and it’s not limited to financial information. Going ahead, CPAs need to learn from professionals in other fields, so that they’re better able to work with nonfinancial data. For instance, CPAs may use dashboard software—data visualization tools that display key metrics for a business—to view information such as production statistics, customer visits, and website clickthroughs. While much of this data isn’t traditional accounting data, it’s still important to the modern business, Schwartz explained. Accountants can put that information into the context of a business’s financial measures and use the analysis to draw actionable insights.

“Accountants think they have a lot of data, but what they’re looking at in accounting information systems and transaction data can be quite limited,” she said. “Meanwhile, the world is furiously generating all kinds of data.”

Going forward, learning to use all of that data to provide insights to clients will be as crucial for 21st century accountants as providing basic payroll and tax services was to their predecessors throughout much of the past century.
 
Frank Vinluan is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.

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