CPAs are in a race -– a race against algorithms, against automation and against computing power. “In this age of smart machines increasing at exponential rates, we simply cannot win the race against the machines,” states Tom Hood of the Maryland Association of CPAs. “Instead we need to learn how to race with the machines and focus on the skills that they can’t do, like collaboration, creativity, anticipation, empathy and trust. These ‘success skills’ are increasingly the differentiators for CPAs.”

However, these skills are not natural or traditional for many CPAs. The key to CPAs thriving in the brave new world will be developing competencies in the above interpersonal skills.

I ask CPA audiences, “What business are you in?” I hear, “We provide attest services or consulting services.” I respond by asking them to try again. I will continue to ask until I feel their frustration, as I now have their full attention. I state that they are in the people business. Without people you have no business. You have no clients, no customers, no employees, no suppliers and no profits. Everything else is secondary. If you agree that this a true statement, we must ask ourselves when we are going to start investing in acquiring this knowledge. We need to build strong relationships with our clients, customers and the people that we employ. This requires us to leave our desks and venture into the operations of the business.

In Geoff Colvin’s book, Humans Are Underrated, he discusses how the rapid advancement in technology will have a major effect on those professions and jobs that are highly repetitive. He states, “The overall message is a sobering one: The machines are now able to copy or even improve on a lot of human skills, and thus they are encroaching on jobs. We won’t all have to join the bread line, but not everyone will prosper in this new world.”

Geoff continues, “The second and more original message is a take on which human abilities will remain important in light of growing computer efficacy. In a nutshell, those abilities are empathy, interpersonal skills and who we are, rather than what we do.”

 

MEET THE FUTURE

Have you noticed that there are more IBM Watson commercials on TV today? IBM refers to this as cognitive computing. In the article “Computing, Cognition and the Future of Knowing,” by Dr. John Kelley, he states that, “Cognitive systems are probabilistic. They generate not just answers to numerical problems, but hypotheses, reasoned arguments and recommendations about more complex — and meaningful — bodies of data.”

It is my belief that cognitive computing will affect the accounting profession in significant ways. Projects will require less number-crunching and more proficiency in communicating and relationship-building. Is it crazy to think that Microsoft Excel may be extinct in less than 10 years?

In the March 7, 2016, CFO.com article, “Will Machines Take Over Finance?,” author John Parkinson states, “A lot of ‘knowledge work’ today is really just the routine application of a set of rules, with some ability to identify situational errors (and fix them if possible) or exceptions (circumstances the rules can’t handle and which need to be routed to better qualified people to address). We’re getting close to the point where the various forms of artificial intelligence can take over the more routine aspects of knowledge work — and in many cases do a better job of identifying (if not yet fixing or handling) errors and exceptions.”

Parkinson goes on to say, “The corporate world’s endless drive for productivity will discover and adopt much of this sooner or later — looking to replace knowledge workers with software wherever they can. There will still be a need for both ‘relationship’ or ‘interaction’ skills that only humans, so far, can demonstrate.”

If you don’t want to be extinct, now is the time to invest in interpersonal skills. Get out from behind your desk, and get to know your client or business better. This can help your career. A close personal friend began her career many years ago at Limited Brands, in the human resources department. She did not have a college degree but because of a unique strategy she employed, she rose up to the level of executive vice president of human resources for all the divisions of Limited Brands and reported directly to the CEO. When asked about her strategy, she replied, “I got away from my office and learned the business firsthand.” She would sit and discuss the business perspective from all departments, even the accounting/finance department. Over time, she became a valued and trusted advisor to a multi-billion-dollar business.

Recently, I taught a course, “How To Identify, Explain, and Present Pertinent Financial Information to Non-Accountants,” to members of the Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs. I asked the CFOs in the class if they were considered trusted advisors in their organizations. A few said that they were, but it took time for other departments to trust them because of the perceived accounting stereotype. They broke through this stereotype by leaving their office and learning all aspects of the business.

We are in a race. It will not be easy, but you have time and you can win. If you want to be perceived as a trusted advisor — get away from your office, be curious, and ask a lot of good questions.

Let’s take the approach that Geoff Colvin recommends: “Rather than ask what computers can’t do, it’s much more useful to ask what people are compelled to do. And what we are compelled to do is to contact other humans and seek value from them.”

Peter A. Margaritis, CPA, is a speaker, educator, trainer, humorist, and self-proclaimed chief “edutainment” officer for The Accidental Accountant, as well as the author of Improv Is No Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life. 

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