Collaborate and adapt - your future might depend on it

Three conversations have given CFO South Africa MD Graham Fehrsen insight into the future of accounting.

Three engagements this year have significantly impacted my perspective and understanding of the future of the accounting profession. I am no accounting expert, nor do I claim to have a clear horizon on the profession but each of these moments gave me a chance to reflect on whether AI and machines will replace or supplement human beings in the finance and accounting world.

I sat down with a top CFO recently, one with a lifetime of success and top jobs behind him. When I asked about what impact AI and robotics might have on the profession this CFO said “I don’t see a significant impact in accounting or auditing for some time still.” I was a little surprised given other interactions with CFOs who were busy with significant projects in this area. 

This CFO is entering the last third of their career and is trusted by shareholders, boards, employees and customers to lead the organisation forward every day. Executives might be getting younger but we still don’t see many people leading the largest organisations during the first third of their career so this “last third” group of people remain important. 

My next opportunity to further my understanding of the accounting profession came through a meeting with an audit executive inside one of South Africa’s most exemplary and successful entrepreneurial businesses. Through a combination of circumstance, “Ah ha!” moments and surroundings, she has launched a bot that is certain to change the auditing landscape.

“A number of people followed me when I took this role and I felt a sense of responsibility. I was at a Singularity event when the idea really came together that I simply had to embrace tech for my team to have a viable future as auditors - robot-building auditors!” she says.   

This executive has reached the mid-point of a 30-year career and has a clear desire to embrace newness and adapt. In a sense, her professional survival depends on it and although it’s clear the technology is doing some of the work, the drive of this group of “middle third” careerists is still important to business.

Then, I met two educators who passionately and separately declared their commitment to finding a better way to educate young people to navigate the world of work they will be entering. 

“These kids face a completely new world where their education will have to prepare them not just to think, as schools have traditionally done, but to do and to collaborate.”

The last point was emphasised by both educators and when asked why, both suggested that the key to success in an increasingly complex and dynamic future working environment will be the ability to keep learning and collaborate.

For as long as people continue to enter the workplace this group of “first third” careerists will be important to the success of organisations for their fearlessness and connection to technology.

While I don’t see accountants losing their relevance I firmly believe that their future value will depend on how they accelerate their ability to collaborate and adapt.

This article was originally published in CFO magazine