[IMGCAP(1)]While some may think that accountants are technology-averse, the profession actually has a long and honorable history of adopting new tools and integrating them into the work it does, to the point where you can’t imagine accountants without them. Think of the abacus, the ledger book, the adding machine and the calculator — at almost any given point in history where there have been accountants, they’ve been associated with fairly sophisticated technologies.

This is particularly impressive when you compare accounting with other professions: While the abacus has been around in one form or another since 2,300 BCE, doctors didn’t even master soap until the 19th century, and several thousands years of lawyering have produced nothing more useful than the gavel.

However, at the same time that it’s safe to say that, historically speaking, accountants are no Luddites, it’s also safe to say that they are not, by and large, early adopters. No doubt the abacus was originally met with scorn by the vast majority of Sumerian CPAs, who could count well enough with their fingers and toes, thank you very much (and in any case, having client data out there on a rack of beads where anyone can see it is hardly secure), and it probably took a few centuries of declining revenues and seeing their best clients among the temple granaries defect to more forward-thinking bead-counters before the ancient profession as a whole made the transition. Once it was clear that the abacus (or the double-entry ledger, or the adding machine) was safe and more efficient, the profession adopted them wholesale, and made them so integral to its work that they became symbols of accounting.

Computers are not likely to become symbols of accounting the way adding machines did — too many businesses, industries and professions rely on them for anyone to claim a monopoly — but they have certainly revolutionized many of the traditional services that accountants render, from bookkeeping to tax prep, and have long since become a fully accepted part of the office furniture.

Unlike the abacus and the adding machine, however, computers are not static — they constantly offer new capabilities and opportunities, which means that the profession is going to find itself constantly required to evaluate and adapt to them, without the luxury of long reflection. As examples, here are two areas of technology that will require your attention; one now, and one in the near future:

  • The cloud. Much has been made of the ongoing switch to software accessed through online subscriptions, and of the security issues of having data stored off-site (it’s actually much safer there than in your office). But the main value of the cloud is that it enables instant collaboration between far-flung clients and team members, erasing distance and giving everyone access to the same information at the same time. That will require major adjustments at many firms.
  • Auditing. New tools for data-gathering and information-sharing (Validis, Confirmation.com and the new Rivio financial information clearinghouse all spring to mind) are going to take a lot of the drudgework out of auditing, which will be fantastic — but in the not-so-distant future, smart systems for financial reporting and data analysis will completely reshape what an audit is and when and how it’s performed.

In the end, accountants will wind up taking on these new tools and adapting itself to make the most of them. The question is, how long will it take? If you and your firm can get ahead of the profession’s traditionally long adoption curve, you stand to benefit enormously in time savings, new and more valuable service offerings, closer client relationships, and stronger recruitment and retention.
Just remember — technology has always been and will always be an integral part of accounting, but being slow to adopt it doesn’t have to be.

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today.

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