Date posted: 30/06/2020

Pandemic highlights capabilities needed to thrive in future

Chartered Accountants who prospered during the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated capabilities that are critical to successfully navigate the future of accounting.

In Brief

  • Adapting skills and capabilities for the ‘new normal’
  • Continuous learning and adaptability to change throughout career
  • Firms have to keep adapting and educating their employees, and individuals have to keep on learning

As we all adapt to the ‘new normal’, it’s worth reflecting on the skills and capabilities that enabled some people and firms to flourish during the pandemic while others struggled to cope, says Simon Hann, CA ANZ Group Executive, Education and Learning.

Most had to flip working models rapidly, to work from home, communicate remotely and fastrack new technology solutions. Many also had to balance heavy workloads with challenging domestic and social situations as well.

Hann says those who had an adaptive mindset, excellent digital fluency, a knack for ethical collaboration and problem-solving coped best - anecdotally, at least.

“Times of crisis show us why these skills are important and if we don’t have them, it’s a wakeup call,” says Hann. “We’ll see an increasing focus on programs and frameworks to help people develop resilience and coping skills. It affects productivity but it’s also critical to wellbeing.”

The pandemic underlined some of the critical capabilities accountants need to navigate the future: skills that are important not just in Australia and New Zealand but to millions of other people working from home around the world. 

As part of a major strategic initiative focused on the future of accounting, CA ANZ began work well before the pandemic on developing a new model of the capabilities of future CAs.

In late 2018, a CA ANZ team surveyed 2,000 members, held workshops and focus groups as well as drew on the research and competency frameworks developed by member institutions, in particular, from Canada, Scotland, Ireland, England & Wales, South Africa and the Accounting Professional Ethical & Standards Board.

“Through our original research we developed a model that grew out of the capabilities most important to our CA ANZ members,” says Lisa Thomas, CA ANZ Manager, Learning Initiatives . “COVID-19 just highlights and validates the importance of what we already knew and what’s going to be continually important.”

Industry pulse

CA ANZ’s new capability model also echoes the experience of academics who regularly take the pulse of the industry, through continuous interaction with established business people who employ accountants.

“They keep telling us that number crunching is not the only thing accountants need to know,” says Professor Rahat Munir CA, head of Macquarie University’s Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance.

Every two years his department holds an industry round table with about 50 executives to ensure that Macquarie’s accountancy and finance graduates have the capabilities that ensure they’re employable.

“Of course, we teach students how to prepare financial statements and about reporting standards. But they need to know how to analyse data, problem solve and think critically - and then communicate all of that to clients.” 

Client interaction is why soft skills are increasingly important. “Our students have to develop strong communication skills, emotional intelligence, ethical thinking and collaboration. You can teach technical skills easily, but these soft skills have to be more embedded in their assessments,” he says. 

Continuous learners

So once graduates are out in the workforce and well along on their career journey, how do they build and hone all their skills?

CA ANZ has a range of targeted formal Continuing Professional Development programs and resources that CAs can choose from, says Thomas, who was one of the authors of the CA ANZ research.

She encourages them to develop themselves informally, too, through a process of self-reflection as well as asking others for help. “Talk to colleagues. Build your networks. Get a mentor. Get feedback on projects about how well you collaborated,” she says.

Many employers expect potential employees to be continuous learners, who can adapt to change and build new capabilities as needed throughout their career. “They are looking for people who appreciate their own individual strengths and weaknesses, analyse how they impact their work and how to set goals about their own self development,” Thomas says.

While the nature of work will change rapidly into the future, accountants’ core capabilities will continue to make them relevant.

Another significant way CAs can differentiate themselves and stay relevant is through specialisation. Many accountants are increasingly becoming business advisers. Cyber security, blockchain management and forensic accountancy are other areas facing rising demand and well-paid roles, Munir says.

While the nature of work will change rapidly into the future, accountants’ core capabilities will continue to make them relevant.

“The accountancy profession is not going to die,” Munir says. “I have been saying this for the last 30 years. Firms have to keep adapting and educating their employees, and individuals have to keep on learning. That’s the only way forward.”

For many organisations and industries - including the accounting profession - COVID-19 has been the impetus for change. The question is: has it exposed you or your firm to a gap in the capabilities you’ll need to navigate what comes next?

“We have had an absolute step change come out of what's happened. We'd been talking about the future of work and the importance of employability skills or soft skills. That has just completely accelerated as a result of COVID,” Hann says.