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updated: 10/10/2017 7:37 AM

The changing landscape of the accounting industry

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You hear the buzz words all the time; everyone is talking about the shifting priorities in the workplace, cloud based accounting and outsourcing.

The business world is changing rapidly and the accounting industry is changing with it. What's in store, and how is the industry responding?

The primary challenge to the accounting industry, as indicated in AICPA surveys, is maintaining the population of its talent pool. A driver of this challenge is the divergence of priorities and expectations of the emerging workforce from industry traditions. And we're not talking about your unruly interns anymore -- they've been around long enough that they're management now. While some industries started catering to them immediately, the movement to meet the demands of this new generation wasn't as natural for the accounting industry.

Coming from the days where staff "paid their dues" with long work weeks, client needs came before employee morale, and the path to partner was a long and ambiguous one, it's not surprising that management in CPA firms was slow to cater to their new constituents. Over the last few years, however, we've seen a shift in the mentality of the industry, and firms are increasingly implementing policies and programs to attract and retain the next generation of talent.

There's no getting around the long hours inherent in public accounting, but in an attempt to provide work-life integration, firms are building out flexible schedules and work-from-home policies. Such policies are also a result of an increased shift in focus on balancing employee morale with servicing clients.

Firms are also rethinking the process for promoting staff to partner. Annual reviews with infrequent feedback and vague promises are no longer enough to keep talent on the line. HR managers are developing processes for continuous feedback, mentorship programs and clear paths for advancement. Some recruits walk in the door wanting to know exactly what needs to be done to make partner and how quickly they can do it, while some have other priorities. What they share is their desire for a career path tailored to their goals, rather than an acceptance of a cookie cutter path they must mold themselves to fit.

In addition to these personnel concerns, the industry also faces the challenges of constantly evolving technology. We thought going paperless was terrifying; now not only have we given up file rooms, but there's mounting pressure to give up server rooms in favor of hosting information in this mysterious abstract called the cloud. While this makes maintaining financial information easier for both businesses and accountants, it also brings security risks that we're still defining -- and if you've ever talked with your accountant about business decisions, risk analysis is the first thing he'll address.

These advances in technology are allowing businesses to outsource key functions, such as accounting, and in doing so free up resources. When a company is only paying for the functionality it uses rather than having a full-time employee, it can allocate its budget, space, and time to operating its core business. For accountants, this means focusing on learning to utilize this technology while still developing technical accounting skills.

With both the internal and external landscapes changing for accounting service providers, it's important to remember that ultimately, this is a relationship driven industry, and no technology or internal process improvement can replace the relationships that are built over time among employees and with business owners.

• Jeff Mowery is managing partner at Mowery & Schoenfeld LLC in Lincolnshire.