Change / transformation | Learning / Education | Management / Strategy

Embrace change or resist it: Only one option is viable

I hate to bother you ... I know how busy you are, after all. We all are. But there’s something here you really need to know.

According to Oxford University, the odds that tax preparation will be completely automated within the next 20 years are 98.7 percent. The odds for accounting and auditing aren’t much better — 93.5 percent. The only occupation that fared worse that ours was telemarketing.

Combine that with these figures from a September 2015 World Economic Forum study titled “Tipping Points and Societal Impact.” Within the next 10 years:

  • 75.4 percent of respondents believe up to 30 percent of corporate audits will be conducted by artificial intelligence;
  • 73.1 percent of respondents believe tax will be collected for the first time by a government via blockchain, a digital ledger of sorts that records transactions; and
  • 45.2 percent of respondents believe an artificial intelligence machine will sit on a board of directors.

Still think technological advances don’t impact the staid world of accounting and finance? Think again.

If these educated predictions come true, your ability to learn new skills — to set aside the core transactional services that have defined this profession for decades and find new ways of adding value — will be the most important skill you will ever possess.

That’s according to Klaus Schwab. Founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, Schwab has written an eye-opening book titled The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which examines how technological advances will impact our world in both good ways and bad. When it comes to automation, Schwab says the verdict is in.

“Given the increasing rate of change of technologies, the fourth industrial revolution will demand and place more emphasis on the ability of workers to adapt continuously and learn new skills and approaches within a variety of contexts,” he writes. “… We are at the threshold of a radical systemic change that requires human beings to adapt continuously. As a result, we may witness an increasing degree of polarization in the world, marked by those who embrace change versus those who resist it.”

And those who resist it, quite frankly, are dead.

So if embracing change is our only viable option, what’s the first step?

Outlearning our degrees and designations would be a good place to start.

We used to be able to go years — decades, even — without worrying about becoming obsolete. Our accounting education and experience had remarkable shelf life.

Not anymore. The “experience curve,” as Tom Hood likes to call it, is shrinking. In fact, futurist Jim Carroll estimates that half of what today’s college freshmen learn in their first year in school will be obsolete by the time they graduate.

Our only hope at continued relevance is what Warren Berger calls “serial mastery.” In his book A More Beautiful Question, Berger describes serial mastery as a mindset in which “the need to constantly adapt is the new reality for many workers.”

“This is no simple task,” adds Fast Company editor Robert Safian. “The vast bulk of our institutions — educational, corporate, political — are not built for flux. Few traditional career tactics train us for an era where the most important skill is the ability to acquire new skills.”

Thankfully, learning new skills is part of a CPA’s DNA. We just need to redirect some of that learning from strictly technical issues to the more future-focused, collaborative, social tasks that machines can’t do — things like strategic and critical thinking, communication, and anticipation. Our profession’s future depends on it.

Rita McGrath, a Columbia Business School professor and one of the world’s most influential business thinkers, puts it this way: “How would you think differently about your strategy if you knew your competitive advantage might not last?” Because it almost assuredly won’t.

Finding your next competitive advantage means spotting trends and identifying opportunities before your competition does. Doing that requires serial mastery — the ability to continuously acquire new skills.

Let the machines crunch the numbers. Let’s start learning how to do the really important things.


William D. Sheridan