By MARGARET CRAIG-BOURDIN
As most of us ponder what a post-COVID-19 world will look like, one thing already seems fairly certain: we won’t simply return to the way we were. “Our workplaces are likely to change, and with it, the skills companies will require,” says Bernard Marr, a futurist, strategic business & technology adviser to governments and author of Future Value Drivers and From Data to Decisions, two of CPA Canada’s management accounting guidelines (MAGs).
Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre, agrees. “We are just coming through an unprecedented global event that is going to have real ramifications in terms of our economy, our society and our workforce. We can start to have some guesses about it but in all likelihood, it will be an evolving reality and one that will require a lot of agility and flexibility. We need to prepare ourselves to be comfortable in that environment.”
Accountants, as key players in the business landscape, as just as much affected by the monumental changes taking place around them as other professionals are. In fact, while the current focus is on the implications of COVID-19, the accounting profession has long recognized that the changing business landscape is creating new opportunities to shift and adapt the value the profession brings to business. The need to develop new skills and competencies is an integral part of Foresight: Reimagining the Profession, an ambitious initiative that is already 18 months into a broad exploration about the future of accounting.
As Gord Beal, vice president, research, guidance and support at CPA Canada, puts it: “The reality is that CPAs need to pivot and adapt and become more agile than ever before. This is true for CPAs in business, government and professional services. And the current pandemic crisis has, in many ways, accelerated the pace of change that was already coming at us.”
Here are some of the skills and competencies that will be key in a post-COVID-19 world. [To learn more about the sectors and businesses that are likely to continue to thrive beyond the pandemic, as well as their connections to CPAs, see Looking past the pandemic: 8 sectors that could thrive in the future]
Long before the pandemic arrived, digital skills and data literacy had become a near-must for many professionals, and the need is even more evident now. As Marr puts it, “One of the best ways to prepare yourself for a post-coronavirus-world is to acquire technology skills. The COVID-19 pandemic is fast-tracking digital transformations in companies as they are trying to become more resilient to future outbreaks and disruptions. The reality is that technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, the Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, and robotics will make businesses more resilient to future pandemics, and anyone that can help companies exploit these technologies will be in a great position.” He adds that this will be true “whether you work in a factory or an accounting office in a post-coronavirus world.”
(It’s important to note that CPA Canada has released a two-part video series on robotic process automation that interviews two CPAs on their implementations. CPA Canada has also partnered with AICPA to offer a robotic process automation certificate.)
Similarly, data literacy has become even more important. Says Marr: “As the fuel of the 4th industrial revolution, data is a critical asset for every company.… However, the data is useless to a company unless there [are] people equipped with skills to understand the data and make better decisions because of it. Professionals with data literacy will be even more appealing to prospective employers than ever before.”
Naturally, accountants have everything to gain by improving their data literacy. In fact, mastering a data-driven economy is one of the primary research pillars for the Foresight initiative. In the past, many data projects failed because organizations were not equipped to manage an entirely new set of tasks, from collecting, grading and labelling data, managing access rights and storing data to generating new insights from artificial intelligence. In today’s uncertain environment, it makes sense for organizational leaders to plan their transition to digitization carefully.
With the pandemic bringing into play such massive quantities of information—in the public health sphere, among so many others, data is being used to model how COVID-19 will play out based on various scenarios—the need for data governance is more important than ever.
As Beal puts it, “The reality is that the world is increasingly dependent on data and we knew that was going to happen before and it’s even more prevalent today.”
Along with our role in data, value creation has emerged from Foresight as one of the key areas where CPAs could play a role. Value creation is defined in a CPA Canada primer on the subject as the process by which an organization creates the potential for (a) revenue and net income that can be realized in the future, and/or (b) future benefits for the organization’s stakeholders. (Future benefits might include activities such as research and development, service delivery and working toward positive societal and community impacts.)
Foresight makes it clear that, since the notion of value creation is broader than it used to be, the traditional framework for reporting results to shareholders is no longer adequate for envisioning value creation.
As Beal explains, “Value creation goes beyond financial performance to include how organizations demonstrate value to a broad range of stakeholders. How do they treat customers? How are they seen by their suppliers and employees?” He adds, “Decisions on value creation are, in fact, driven by data analytics, and the data that is being used.”
A Foresight research project is exploring various international value creation frameworks and will utilize case studies to explore their applicability for enhanced decision-making in value creation. The activity will also offer important insights for CPA Canada to enable a further contribution to global conversations around the simplification and consolidation of the value creation reporting landscape.
In keeping with this broader definition of value creation, Foresight envisioned that the evolving role of the CPA will:
Provide insight on performance: Drive enhanced decision making by leveraging emerging technologies and the availability of instantaneous information, to provide real time insight and foresight.
Lead and advise with integrity (across a broader scope and to an expanded range of decision makers).
Provide assurance and trust in information: Expand beyond financial information to encompass a broader range of information sources.
As the pandemic continues to disrupt huge swaths of the economy, it is emphasizing the relevance of these roles even more. Beal puts it this way: “Over the past few months, organizations have been fundamentally rethinking their business models and operations and the way they drive value. They’re doing this not only to stay in business, but also to drive products that are going to be needed in the marketplace, and the way they deliver those products. Whether it’s a restaurant rethinking how it can serve its customers by offering curbside pickup or delivery, or a grocery store offering ways to shop online, they know they have to innovate faster than ever before. They cannot continue to operate the way they had done in the past. Otherwise, before they know it, someone else is going to come along and replace them.”
As organizations rethink their value propositions, says Beal, they are using the data at their disposal. “They make important decisions that are based on a wide range of data and data sources,” he says. “So this raises questions about the source of the data, the credibility of that source, and how the data is analyzed to support the decisions that are being made. And accountants can play an important role in this process.”
When it comes to providing assurance and trust in information, Beal stresses that this role extends beyond audit and assurance in the traditional sense. “It’s about providing insight around the data that is being utilized for decision making. It’s about providing assurance to support trust in that information. It is also about the speed with which that has to happen. It can’t happen two or three months down the road—it almost has to be instantaneous, so that organizations can pivot and adapt.”
Beal adds: “All of this is so elemental to where Foresight was already headed. But over the past few months, we have seen the speed of that change escalating exponentially.”
In the past, says Barata, these were often overlooked in favour of what are often called technical or cognitive skills. But now they are much more in demand on employer surveys, and for good reason: “If you think about what will be necessary in a world of rapid and constant change, you will need an entire suite of skills,” he says. “You’ll need the ability to solve problems, demonstrate initiative, meet challenges head on, take charge, collaborate, connect the dots across sectors and teams, show resiliency, mesh minds to create and achieve goals, and provide excellent leadership.”
In future, says Barata, we need to place these skills front and centre on the skills agenda rather than treating them essentially as the third leg of the stool. “Unlike some functional skills, they’re not automatable,” he says.
Beal agrees. “When it comes to technical skills, we have to let go of what we used to do before moving forward. And it’s through social and emotional skills such as resiliency, creativity and adaptability that we can learn to excel.”
The knowledge and skills of the future CPA will be undertaken by a newly formed Competency Map Task Force. The approach will be to ensure the work of the Foresight project informs the new competency map through ongoing knowledge sharing and joint research initiatives.
Want to stay up to date on the learnings emerging from CPA Canada’s strategic initiative to reshape the accounting profession? Check out Foresight: Reimagining the Profession.
Plus, learn about robotic process automation by viewing CPA Canada’s spotlight on the subject, as well as its new two-part video series that interviews two CPAs on their RPA implementations. CPA Canada has also partnered with AICPA to offer a robotic process automation certificate.
This story first appeared on CPA Canada’s online news site.