Five vital digital skills you’ll need in future

Top 10 firm Grant Thornton has overhauled its training to place greater emphasis on digital skills. Here are five key skills it has highlighted

There is a significant digital skills gap in the profession, according to research from education provider, BPP. Its study found that data, artificial intelligence and automation were the most important skills accountants said they would need training for over the next decade.

One firm that is actively trying to help build its employees’ digital skills is Grant Thornton. Head of audit, Fiona Baldwin says: “Data and technology play a vital role in the modern-day accountancy profession as clients become more sophisticated with their own finance systems and embrace digital working as the new normal with ever-increasing integrated systems across their whole businesses. As auditors, therefore, it is important that we have the skills and experience to audit those systems in an effective, efficient and value-add manner.”

Grant Thornton’s programme will provide its trainees with a strong understanding of the role that data and technology play in modern-day accountancy. “Our aim is to accelerate digital literacy and data analytical skills to give our associate population further credibility and expertise to effectively advise our clients,” says Joanne Ritchie, head of early careers at Grant Thornton. So what are the areas the firm is focussing on?

1. Managing big data

Accountants are faced with much more information than ever before, which they use to provide insight to a business. Big data has massive implications for accountants, according to BPP’s director of technology programmes Robbie White. He said: “Organisations will have millions of transactions and so an understanding of where data is being generated, what it does and how it impacts the performance of the business are now expectations which any company will have of an accountant. Accountants must learn the ability, therefore, to wrangle data, while still managing data governance and logical data transformation processes which will be crucial in complex environments.”

2. Analysing and visualising data

Using big data to provide more logical insight is the next important skill-set. Accountants are increasingly being expected to use analytics to manage huge volumes of data. Analytics and data visualisations provide the intelligence into what is actually happening within the business.

Accountants can then make decisions armed with this information. Previously, they may have reviewed just a sample of data, the expectation now is to have the entire population of data available to review at any given time, says White. It also means that principles like continuous control monitoring, smart audits and automated mitigations are becoming a reality.

“Accountants must learn to represent data in a meaningful manner using whichever tools are available to them. There is now an expectation that most accountants will have audit analytics experience and are knowledgeable in business intelligence – such as Microsoft PowerBI, Tableau or Altryx,” he says.

3. Beef up on cyber security

As more data and information is gathered and analysed, there is a greater need for robust cyber security. Accountants working with data or advising clients must be aware of their responsibility and the part it plays in the wider assurance process.

“The importance of ensuring business data is managed effectively and efficiently is key, but also knowing the types of security controls that are needed within an IT context are critical,” says White.

Not only is cyber security one of the fastest-growing concerns in many businesses, but it’s increasingly important it is understood beyond the IT team. White explains it is “critical that every accountant is aware of the best practices around cyber security”, and their firm’s approach to wider IT security issues.

4. Understand Digital Disruption

All Professional services firms are having to deal with the disruption to their business models that digitalisation innovation brings. The ability to manage this change, and also leverage proven mechanisms for embracing digital practices, is crucial and can lead to more success. “Research shows that the digital transformation of businesses is one of the largest global growth markets and organisations, irrelevant of size, are making changes to their business models to accommodate this global shift,” says White. “Accountants will be expected to practice ideas such as design thinking, agile project management methodologies, horizon scanning of technologies and overall resilience in order to make the most of this opportunity.”

Grant Thornton is looking beyond the new for trainee modules to other ways of arming employees with what they need. This, says Ritchie, is a need at all levels of the firm, highlighting that it is vital to equipping staff with the expertise to harness digital tools. “Our business school, with the support of our firm’s digital leadership team, continues to design and deliver relevant training,”

5. Ethical and legal matters

Ethics and the decision-making process around technology will increasingly rely on assurance practices in designing technology. It is important for accountants to have an understanding of the ethical decisions which they will, and do, face.

“Ethical decisions around the design of machine learning models and artificial intelligence already receive much focus and providing independent, fair and justified assurance and insight into these types of ethical debates will support accountants’ future skills,” says White. Understanding the relevant frameworks, models and mechanisms of reviewing these ethical issues are now key skills for accountants, he adds. 

David Nunn is Content Manager at AAT.

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