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What's Critical for CPAs to Learn in an AI-Powered World


Aug 27, 2019
The following is a roundtable discussion transcript with David Cieslak, CPA, CGMA, CITP, chief cloud officer and executive vice president with business-consulting firm RKL eSolutions LLC; Liz Mason, CPA, founder and CEO of High Rock Accounting; and Amy Vetter, CPA, CGMA, CITP, CEO of The B3 Method Institute.

Technology for CPAs

WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING TECHNOLOGIES WILL PRODUCE THE BIGGEST CHANGES IN THE CPA PROFESSION — AI, BLOCKCHAIN, OR SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY?

Cieslak: That’s an easy one. Artificial intelligence.

Mason: I agree artificial intelligence will change the face of the profession, but I also think we need to be looking at augmented analytics and advanced analytics.

Vetter: I agree with Dave. Artificial intelligence.

AMY, WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHANGES YOU FORESEE FOR THE CPA PROFESSION IN THE NEXT FIVE TO 10 YEARS?

Vetter: There’s a lot of talk about accounting firms hiring non-CPAs. An interesting part of that shift is that firms will need privacy and cybersecurity experts and computer systems experts as automation takes on a bigger portion of audit work. When data starts feeding in automatically into systems that evaluate every transaction and flag ones that auditors should check more closely, accounting firms will need people who can test the systems. They will need to make sure the data is feeding in properly and securely so clients are comfortable about us having the data and keeping it safe.

The biggest change for CPAs will be the need to embrace continuous learning. Whether it’s blockchain, robotics, or something else, start picking out the things that really interest you and start building a learning plan beyond the typical CPE.
"The biggest change for CPAs will be the need to embrace continuous learning. Whether it’s blockchain, robotics, or something else, start picking out the things that really interest you and start building a learning plan beyond the typical CPE."

DAVE, YOU ARE THE ONLY MEMBER OF THIS PANEL WHO HAS PARTICIPATED IN A PRIOR ROUNDTABLE. AS YOU LOOK AT THE CHANGES THAT HAVE TAKEN PLACE WITH ACCOUNTING TECHNOLOGY SINCE THE FIRST ROUNDTABLE WAY BACK IN LATE 2011, WHAT STANDS OUT TO YOU?

Cieslak: Thinking about the changes that have transpired in the last eight years, I’m struck by the fact that we’re really at a place where firms and practitioners are appreciating the impact of technology. It’s probably because they’ve seen the impact it’s had in their personal lives. We’re all connected to our smart devices day in and day out. Many, many people have brought Amazon Alexa or Google Home into their households. They see the impact technology has for them personally, and they naturally then ask if they’re doing all they can to leverage technology in the workplace. Also, Millennials are assuming leadership roles in firms and that can’t help but to push a digital mindset to the organization.
WHERE DOES THE CPA PROFESSION STAND WHEN IT COMES TO TECHNOLOGY — AHEAD OF THE GAME, ON THE RIGHT TRACK OR NOT WHERE WE NEED TO BE?

Cieslak: On balance, I think we’re on the right track, but I think firms largely rooted in traditional or legacy services are trailing and may still find themselves largely in a kind of a survival mode, diminishing the remaining value within their organization. We find other firms are understanding the opportunity technology presents and crafting their service offerings accordingly.Mason: I think we’re way behind. There are new technologies out there people aren’t even talking about. The large firms have great big budgets and are making these newer technologies a priority. They are working very hard to implement them across the board. Some young firms are pushing the industry forward, or I should say pulling it if you’re looking at a tech adoption curve, but I believe the majority of firms are behind. Even firms that think they’ve adopted cloud-based technology in my opinion have not fully integrated cloud-based technology.

CPAs & New TechnologyVetter: I think it’s a mix. I consider the technology companies part of the accounting profession, too. I would say the technology companies are on the right track. The segment that may be even further behind than accounting firms is the corporate side of accounting. I have found a lot of these corporate accounting departments are stuck in very antiquated technology because budgets can’t get approved for them to actually upgrade or get to the cloud.

Mason: I completely agree with you that corporate accounting departments are probably the furthest behind. Companies are not making accounting a priority because it’s “overhead.”

LIZ, WHAT NEEDS TO BE HAPPENING WITHIN THE CPA PROFESSION TO GET TO A POSITION WHERE YOU WOULD SAY THEY’RE NOT BEHIND?

Mason: If you’re looking at the firm level, I think every single team member — every partner, every director, every manager, every senior, every staff — needs to be thinking about what technology could do to help them. We need to train people to have critical-thinking skills instead of “we want you to be a robot and produce the same results as the prior year.” It’s a culture shift that needs to happen.

I’ve done a lot of consulting with large companies on how to make their departments more efficient, and one of the biggest issues is redefining roles. They put these people in buckets, and buckets are no longer working from that perspective. To have streamlined technology and efficient processes, you need more dynamic roles and the ability to leverage (and) outsource when you don’t have the expertise internally. Analyze your processes, map them, make sure you understand what your team is doing internally or externally. Understand how to fix your processes first and then review technology solutions to help with the issues and hire experts when needed. Then, of course, there’s always training and ongoing analysis. The rate of change is only increasing. If you implemented a new technology three years ago and that company has not released any updates or put any funding into R&D, the technology is already out of date.
"We need to train people to have critical-thinking skills instead of 'we want you to be a robot and produce the same results as the prior year.'"

WHAT SKILLS SHOULD CPAS BE DEVELOPING NOW TO STAY COMPETITIVE IN THE NEW TECH FUTURE?

Cieslak: It can seem overwhelming and daunting, but it’s a mindset on the part of the individual. It’s revisiting roles and responsibilities. The ideal individual has a combination of technical and digital skills, business skills, people skills and leadership skills. Behind or underneath all of that is a mindset of constant learning.

Vetter: I think the problem is there can seem like a huge hurdle we have to get over — new skills we have to learn, new technology we have to learn, new services we need to offer — and then all of that seems overwhelming.

When you’re doing an implementation plan, you should not just be thinking about the business process or new services. You have to spend equal time on the people side of the implementation, understanding how they’re feeling about it. Sometimes there can be negativity, but if you really dive deep into what the negativity is, you can understand what’s holding people back and make small adjustments that can get most people on board. Do it intentionally, do it with a plan and stay grounded in what you need to accomplish each day without getting overwhelmed by the process.

Mason: To quote Walt Disney, “Keep moving forward.” All of those small incremental changes add up over time, and that’s what a great change management plan does.



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