If you think you've seen big changes in finance departments and accounting firms over the last few years as a result of the wrenching recession, hold on. You ain't seen nothing yet.
"There will be huge shifts in the way we work," CPA Leslie Murphy was telling me. She speaks with some knowledge and authority. A former chair of the AICPA, Murphy is president and CEO of Murphy Consulting Inc., and an architect of the Plante & Moran strategies which have made the firm a Fortune "100 Best Companies to Work For" winner for ten years.
Today, she works with corporate boards at companies like Kelly Services, the global employment agency, and VSP, which probably handles the eyeglass fringe benefit plan where you work.
"There's nothing like a good recession to makes us work differently and to make us think differently," she says. These are some of the questions she ponders as part of a joint AICPA-American Accounting Association commission examining the future course of higher education.
Murphy sees the mega-trend already underway, and accelerated by the recession. "We had layoffs of up to 20 percent in some instances and didn't the work get done? Yes, it did. Because we learned how to do it better, faster, cheaper, with fewer people, or by offloading the work to niche service providers, or by just stopping doing it and finding it wasn't that important in the first place. Now that that's begun, it won't stop. And we have a lot more opportunities in the way we work."
"We have to all start thinking differently about how we're going to start doing things differently," she says. Murphy, a lifelong Michigander and so also a lifelong observer of the auto industry, notes, "They are re-hiring, to an extent. But only half as many as before and it's the highly skilled workers who are going back. The low-skilled workers are still out. From a societal perspective, we need to retrain and retool." The same applies to CPAs and the profession.
Think about how accountants' work has already changed. It began years ago with payroll, which accountants at first gave away to outside agencies because it was too labor intensive to be profitable. But with changes in technology, many firms and companies are working with the same payroll agencies to bring the work back in house, because new tech platforms relieve the burden on the business process.
Or consider inventory. At one time, it was standard operating procedure for accountants to hand-count inventory in client warehouses. Then hand-held devices that could read bar codes made it all a little easer. Today, she notes, "we have smart shelves keeping track of what comes and goes and robots moving things around." All the information is in the company's ERP system, and the accountant's role has changed from counting boxes to performing a risk assessment on the whole system. The next step is coming with banks tying in to a borrower's ERP system and bypassing audited financial statements altogether. "What will CPAs do then?"
It's already happening. For instance, fewer and fewer car dealerships are required to provide audited financial statements for bank financing. Murphy says, "The banks are saying, ‘If the loan is based on how much inventory you have, we don't need a CPA for that. We can count the cars in the lot as well as you can.’ "
But freed of repetitive grunt work, the CPA professional of the future may reap a vast new opportunity in doing what clients and stakeholders really need: Sifting through the hurricane of confusing and conflicting business data to focus on the organization's most strategic objectives.
"The question is," she says succinctly, "how do we move as a profession so more of our time is spent on providing focus to our clients instead of devoting so much time to preparing tax returns or counting receivables?"
Murphy is asking the right questions. You’ll need to supply some of the answers on your own.
IT'S YOUR FUTURE, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT? What are some of the biggest changes you've seen so far? What's next? And what are you doing to prepare yourself and your organization? Email Rick Telberg here.
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Rick Telberg is president and chief executive of Bay Street Group LLC, advisors in marketing, management and strategy.
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