If a business client told you they couldn't think of any challenges facing their industry, you'd worry about them, wouldn't you? Every industry, and every profession, faces challenges, and accounting is no exception.

Even in the best of times, issues spring up. Take the plush years of 2004-2007, when business was booming -- but firms couldn't find enough qualified staff to do all the work that was pouring in. It's an issue you'd kill to have, but it's still an issue.

And if challenges pop up even in good times, how many more will arise during tougher times, like those we're starting to emerge from now? And how many more will arise during periods of tremendous technological change? What about when governments of all levels are becoming more active in regulation and legislation? Or when cultural and demographic changes are re-inventing decades-old career models and business structures?

Because that's where we are now.

On just about every front and at just about every level, change is creating challenges for accountants and accounting firms. You don't have to go far to find long lists of issues -- the agenda of any major accounting conference would serve, and there's a roundup of 20 of them on our cover this month, while not long ago the American Institute of CPAs came out with its annual list of the Top 10 Technology Initiatives for Accounting Firms, which gives a high-level description of the major tech issues you'll need to address. It would be easy to expand each of those lists - to add another 20 trends to our cover story, or to drill down into the institute's list to find dozens of sub-issues and related challenges.

The point here isn't to induce panic (though a little healthy anxiety wouldn't be inappropriate); rather, it's to make it clear that the profession faces more challenges and has more issues to deal with than usual -- and to add that it would probably be wise to assume that this condition is permanent. The pace of change in technology probably won't slow down; the demographics will be with us for a generation or two. The economy will get better, but the competition that it bred during its slow period won't get less fierce. Once upon a time, if someone asked you how many issues your firm faced, you might have said three or four; going forward, you'll be able to name a dozen.

Not all will be major issues, certainly, and you won't have to deal with them all at once. But you need to be ready to grapple with two or three at the same time, and to figure out all the ones you'll want to take care of after that. You'll need to get good at identifying the challenges you didn't even know you were facing, and naming the issues you didn't know you had. Articles like our cover story and lists like the AICPA's will help, but you'll still need to know which apply to your firm or your career in particular.

Identifying the issues relevant to you, and formulating an appropriate response, are critical skills for accountants these days. You can't afford to not know what's wrong with your firm, and when it finally forces itself upon your attention, you can't afford an ad hoc response. Managing change needs to be a core competency.

On the bright side, once you develop that skill you'll be able to use it a lot -- and you may even be able to help that client who says they don't have any issues ... .

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