Technology has turned everyone into explorers – and that gives accountants an opportunity to be the expert navigators all those new explorers rely on, according to software executive Jennifer Warawa.

“There is a lot of complexity in technology today, but there is also opportunity in that complexity—to become the advisor and interpreter, to make sense of it all," Warawa, who is executive vice president of partners, accountants & alliances at accounting software provider Sage, told an audience of accountants at the Maryland Association of CPAs’ 2017 CPA Summit on Wednesday. “You need to drive transformation—businesses are looking to you for that. They need you to tell them what to do. They see the opportunity, and they need you to get in front of it.”

The latest waves of technological change—from the smartphone and the cloud to social media and the vast constellation of apps available to individuals and businesses—have made everyone into a creator and an explorer, Warawa explained, generating huge amounts of data and other content even as they dive into new activities in their personal and their work lives, and in their businesses.

As they do all that, though, they often find themselves lost—overwhelmed by data, confused by the complexity of new technology, and unsure how to move forward.

“A machine can spit out financial statements, but lots of businesses don’t understand those - they can’t make sense of them,” Warawa said. “So how are they going to make sense of AI and machine learning?

This all represents a tremendous opportunity for accountants, she pointed out. “You’re the new human GPS. People are looking to you to make sense of all the different information they’re getting about business,” she said. “Whatever business they’re in, they’re being disrupted. You can help them identify solutions. You’ve seen people like them, you’ve worked with people like them—you can help them solve those problems.”

Those businesses that aren’t looking for direction may stand in even more need of a proactive accountant’s counsel. “If you can go into an industry that does not believe it’s going to be disrupted, and then figure out how they’re going to be disrupted, that’s a huge opportunity for you to help them figure out what they’re going to do about it,” she said.

Where to start

To begin helping others navigate the technological future, accountants will need to do some navigating themselves, Warawa warned, starting with how they think about change.

"It's the mindset shift of transformation around technology that is really going to impact our profession,” she said.

Many in the profession are worried that they themselves are being disrupted by technologies like artificial intelligence. “How do we create a role for CPAs that gets them super-excited, and that can’t be taken away by AI?” she asked.

The trick will be to embrace the change, and use it to move up the value chain. “You can spend your time focusing on the challenge—or on the opportunity,” she continued. “You can be the profession that makes sense of this technology and turns it into something that adds value.”

“CPAs say, ‘You guys are always saying we have to change and drive transformation. Is that really my job?' Yes! Yes, it is your job!” she said. What’s more, your clients may come to expect it: “All your clients are talking to each other—they’re telling each other about who serves them in real-time with proactive advice and forward-thinking services.”

“It can be an exciting profession,” she concluded. “You’re the navigator of the explorers.”

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.