If you think quantum change is already happening in the accounting profession, just wait and see what a number of consultants, practitioners and society heads have forecast for the future.To mark its 20th anniversary issue, Accounting Today elicited predictions from experts on what they feel will be on the profession's agenda for the next 20 years - and beyond.

It should come as no surprise that constant technological innovation will be key.

"We didn't have e-mail, we didn't have voice messaging, we didn't have conference calling, we didn't have cell phones, [and] we didn't have the Internet," explained Gale Crosley, CPA and president of Crosley+Co., a consulting firm in Atlanta, listing a number of current communications staples that weren't around in 1987. "That's what it looked like 20 years ago."

Today, Crosley has an administrative assistant working from home in Denver whom she has never met. Hiring and communication was done by telephone and online, a foreshadowing of the future, according to Crosley. "I think that we'll have total virtual workplaces and what I will call electronic-based relationships," she said. "As this new generation comes onboard, they are used to electronic-based relationships, and because we have such scarce resources, it will just kind of be the norm."

That vision also rings true for Bob Gaby, CPA, CITP and principal of Arxis Technology Inc., in Simi Valley, Calif. Gaby said that he sees meetings being held via video conference, and traditional in-person client engagements will be only for the "technology-impaired."

The new generation will also be working in a totally paperless office, Gaby predicted. "Working with and storing paper documents will be a foreign concept to young accountants, like vinyl records and eight-track tapes," he said.

And so will the traditional time-and-billing system, according to both Crosley and Gary Boomer, chief executive officer of Boomer Consulting in Manhattan, Kan., and long-time Accounting Today columnist. Billable hours will be reserved for cost-accounting purposes, rather than pricing, Crosley said.

"I think we will be working towards a results-based economy, out of an efforts-based economy," Boomer said, adding that firms will become team-based, with people being employed for their unique abilities. "Pricing will become for value, rather than based upon cost plus a profit."

WHAT ABOUT THE OFFICE?

"I'd expect that we'll find fewer accountants and other professionals housed in large brick-and-mortar office space," said Larry Unruh, managing partner of Hein & Associates LLP, in Denver, via e-mail, adding that most CPAs will be working at client sites or from a home office. "Ongoing demands for energy conservation will encourage alternative means for communication, and the work environment will move toward a more virtual one. The information exchange required for reporting will take place on protected networks, and we'll be able to obtain information from clients, banks and other lenders, and attorneys via Web-based systems."

Speed will be at the hub of change within the next 20 years, according to Loretta Doon, chief executive of the California Society of CPAs. She said that the rate of efficiency would pick up dramatically, transforming CPAs into business facilitators.

"Twenty years from now, the productivity will probably be 10 times what it is now because of the tools that we have, because of technology, the speed of how things happen and the skill set of what up-and-coming CPAs have," Doon said.

SPECIALIZED OR NOT?

Better and more accessible technology will open up a variety of doors for those in the accounting profession, lending itself to more global partners and clients. The work, many CPAs agree, will become even more specialized.

"I believe CPA firms will continue to evolve into specialized service practices," said Jim Koerber, CPA/ABV, CVA and principal at The Koerber Co. PA, in Hattiesburg, Miss., a firm that limits its services to litigation, valuation and forensic services. "The days of the 'one-stop-shop' CPA are dwindling. As the CPA profession evolves to meet new standards and requirements, it will require CPAs to become more specialized in the services that they offer. Larger firms are already beginning to spin off portions of their practices into separate, specialized entities. Medium and small-sized CPA firms will embrace this change, too."

Randall Wilson, CPA, CFE, partner and director of U.S. fraud and fidelity services at RGL - Forensic Accountants & Consultants, in St. Louis, said that he sees a combination of professional services continuing to occur 20 years down the road. "People are looking for convenience. I believe the lines of demarcation distinguishing legal, brokerage and accounting services will be blurred and a combination of these services will be provided under one umbrella."

Steve Tait, president of mega-firm RSM McGladrey, predicted that activity around mergers and acquisitions, as well as international tax, will continue to increase as more companies show an interest in embracing the global economy. "Looking ahead 20 years, I think the profession will revolve around centers of excellence that match client needs with tailored solutions," Tait said. "We see a growing emphasis on entrepreneurial, middle-market companies that will shape the future of the business, regulatory and policy landscape."

Expectations for accountants and CPAs also will change, from being scorekeepers for a company's historical transactions, to presenting more real-time information measured in terms of the current fair value of assets and obligations, according to Todd Markus, vice president of accounting and finance and enterprise governance at Accretive Solutions in Santa Clara, Calif.

"As in all other aspects of life, the world continues to become a smaller and smaller place," he said. "The idea of one set of accounting principals in the U.S., another in Europe and still others in different countries is one that can't last. Global users of financial statements will require common 'GAAP' - globally accepted accounting principals."

Women will be at the forefront of firm management and, according to Boomer, strategic planning is going to be even more important to attract bright people. "Those bright people want to know where the firm's headed, what the vision is," he said. "So firms are going to have to be more articulate in their planning as we move forward, and they are going to have to define and automate their processes."

THE SAME, BUT DIFFERENT

A more diverse population of accountants will also be prevalent. George S. Willie, CPA, CGFM and managing partner at Bert Smith & Co., in Washington, D.C., said that his vision for the future is clearer than it was 20 years ago. "I see a profession which understands diversity," he wrote via e-mail. "I see a profession that recognizes that groups such as the National Association of Black Accountants should be embraced, nurtured and included."

Willie, who also chairs the President's Advisory Council at NABA, said that he envisions "a profession practicing with full mobility across all state borders and adopting almost complete international convergence of auditing and financial reporting standards, convergence that will driven by the American Institute of CPAs."

Thalia Zetlin, principal and chief marketing officer at Berdon LLP in New York, said that the future of accounting is going to be about getting "real."

"One of the things that I see more of all the time is a growing desire for straight-speak, openness and honesty," Zetlin said. "Clients, I believe, are looking for more straightforward behavior, and 20 years from now will gravitate to those who provide it. Internally, I think with recruiting and retention it's going to play a major role. Firms will take a better look at themselves and reflect on what they are truly all about. And, in turn, they will attract that person who is looking to become a part of that feel and that belief."

While change is inevitable, some elements will remain true to the accounting profession. "When I look back 20 years, it's not so much what has changed," Doon said. "It's what has stayed the same, and that is our core values: integrity, competence, independence, objectivity and our desire to protect the public. That has been the same throughout the history of the profession, and I think 20 years from now that will be still there."

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