In-house accountants are understandably anxious about being caught in the crosshairs of technological change. After all, better software and improved machine learning are automating many basic accounting functions, and stricter managerial scrutiny has put many in-house teams in the unenviable position of having to defend the accuracy, efficiency, and value of their work.
Doing one’s job while simultaneously trying to keep it is no fun, of course. To prove their worth, in-house accountants need to embrace recent advances in enterprise software and take maximum advantage of its capabilities. They also need to establish a new value proposition that moves the accounting function to the forefront of the corporate decision-making process, where it can occupy its rightful place as a core contributor to the success of the enterprise.
What follows are several steps that in-house accountants can take not only to ensure their survival but also to reinvigorate their work and expand their sphere of influence.
Accept the Inevitable
There is no way around it: Technology will continue to disrupt and transform the accounting profession, making adaptation imperative. Everyone knows this, but few know precisely how to do it. The first step is to envision a practical approach to a more hopeful future—one aided by new technologies that are specifically designed to enhance accounting’s contribution to organizational success.
Action step: Learn to accept and embrace change. Otherwise, you’ll be miserable.
Seize the Power
Because so many basic accounting functions are being automated, enterprises expect (and need) their accountants to step up in other ways. Well-designed enterprise software can be customized to fit the needs of any business, and the additional capabilities these programs provide—in terms of workflow efficiency, flexibility, cross-platform integration, reporting, analytics, and security—can help forward-looking accountants expand their professional toolkits. There is power in these programs, so seize it.
Action item: Ask if, how, or whether the technology you are using is ideal for your business.
Master the Technology
Despite all the dire warnings, in-house accountants are actually in an ideal position to leverage the power of more sophisticated enterprise software systems and improved data analytics. Why? Because they have access to, and responsibility for, the most important data of all—a company’s financials. That treasure trove of data, combined with technology that enables more penetrating analyses, deeper insights, and more accurate forecasting, can give accountants access to institutional intelligence unavailable anywhere else in the organization.
Action step: Imagine you know something your CEO doesn’t. Then what?
In-house accountants need to go beyond the numbers and fundamentally rethink how they contribute value to the enterprise. To secure essential leadership roles, for example, in-house accountants need to develop a fuller, more holistic understanding of the enterprise and the larger business ecosystem—operational, political, economic, regulatory, and other possible realms—in which it operates. Such an understanding will help to reveal opportunities to make the tax function more strategic and responsive, and hence more valuable.
Action step: Broaden your worldview, one business objective at a time.
Look to the Future
As automation displaces more traditional rule-based accounting practices, the tax function itself should strive for more strategic relevance. This can be accomplished by using financial data to identify ways to improve business processes, identify risk, create wealth, and otherwise improve organizational performance. Increased demand for real-time reporting and predictive analytics also offers opportunities for tax professionals to demonstrate their value to the organization’s overall mission. Those who master new technologies and strive to provide the C-suite with unique layers of insight will be in a better position to persuade leadership that a crack in-house tax team can be a significant competitive advantage.
Action step: Learn how predictive analytics and more sophisticated financial modeling can yield new forms of business intelligence.
New tax laws, constant regulatory reform, and an ever-shifting international tax landscape all spell job security to in-house tax professionals who make it their mission to understand the implications of all that chaos. Complexity and unpredictability tend to make C-suite executives anxious, but their nerves can be calmed by a knowledgeable, confident tax professional who can successfully guide them through the financial weeds. Be that person.
Action item: Continuously monitor tax policy for relevant updates and stay alert to changes that may impact the organization.
Learn to Communicate
According to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), the two future-proofing skills most accountants need to develop (and currently lack) are technological competence and communication skills. Though technical mastery is important, it’s just as crucial for tax professionals to learn how to articulate the logic supporting their conclusions and the overall rationale behind their business recommendations—for tax strategy, risk management, operational improvement, and anything else. As the responsibilities and expectations of the tax function broaden, being able to communicate to leadership across departments—and even across cultures—will become an increasingly valuable skill.
Action step: Talk to other people in your company and in other departments, and find out what their challenges are.
Emphasize Proximity, Loyalty
One huge advantage in-house accounting personnel have is that they are right there, right now. Don’t take this proximity for granted; use it to establish the tax function as an invaluable part of the overall decision-making process and to make instant access to the department a strategic no-brainer. A department that is alert to the business challenges of the moment, responsive to spontaneous data requests, and available for immediate consultation will, over time, prove its value again and again. Personal loyalty is also important, so work to establish a reputation for unquestionable ethics and integrity.
Action item: Open your door. If someone knocks, let him or her in.
Make Time to Grow
Clarion calls to continuously adapt to changing market forces often fail to account for the fact that doing so takes time and energy—two luxuries that overworked accountants don’t always have. It’s important, however, to carve out time to read professional journals, keep up with technological advances, and otherwise educate oneself about how the profession is evolving. These are easy tasks to put off and are often above and beyond the call of duty—but they are the key to formulating more productive ideas about how in-house tax personnel and departments can establish their value and contribute more fully to the ongoing success of their business.
Action item: Set aside half an hour a day for your professional development. Your future may depend on it.
Tad Simons is an award-winning technology journalist and a member of the Thomson Reuters Enterprise Thought Leadership team. He writes about artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, institutional efficiency, and communications in the fields of tax administration, accounting, and corporate/government accountability.