Almost every facet of financial services – from banking and wealth management to provision of bookkeeping and accounting services – is being upended by technology.
Accounting and other smart software, for example, has completely transformed the industry. “We really have come a long way, from having to physically balance books to getting a complex report with a click of a button,” says Rob Kelly, director at accountancy firm Marriott & Kelly.
Kathryn Moran is partner and head of outsourcing at haysmacintyre. She says that before widespread digitalisation, her department used one or two pieces of software but now that number exceeds ten. She adds: “Our understanding of technology is now far wider, too. You simply have to have that breadth of knowledge to remain competitive in the market. Clients expect you to be digitally adept, particularly those in the tech industry. They want you to speak their language.”
Commercial organisations are also increasingly using technology to their advantage, especially cloud computing. “Many are pushing for paperless offices, with their accounts now based solely in the cloud,’ says Henry Hoey, specialist accountancy practice consultant at Heat Recruitment. SMBs in particular are keen adopters of the cloud. Recent research shows that 76% of small businesses in the UK now use cloud-based solutions for their accounting and IT needs.
These businesses expect their accountants to be using the latest technology to manage their accounts, something that many finance professionals still resist. In fact, Xero’s recent Digital or Die report finds that as many as eight in ten accountants still work off spreadsheets and a fifth still use a paper ledger – a tool that dates back to the 13th century.
But this is set to change because, as the report points out, the profession is at a technological tipping point.
Damon Anderson, director of Partner at Xero, comments: “The UK accounting industry is entering a new digital age, driven by unprecedented changes in accounting technology and a perfect storm of regulation from MTD and PSD2 to GDPR.” He adds that accountants who do not embrace technological change will soon have two options: go digital or go extinct.
With the right technology, finance businesses can operate more efficiently and more profitably. “The processes are streamlined so more clients can be taken on and managed with the same time investment,” says Hoey. They need fewer staff too, he adds.
But the staff they do need must have just the right skills. Finance employers, therefore, increasingly look to hire people who are not only adept and comfortable with the latest technology but who can also speak about it to their clients and use it to fix business problems.
Hoey points out that salaries have gone up substantially for job candidates with good knowledge of cloud-based software. He adds: “Employers are now also looking for Xero and Sage One certifications that prove you are not only capable of using the software but also of training clients in it – it’s a specialism in itself.”
Of course, employers have different expectations of their new staff’s technical ability at different stages in their career.
“At entry level, the very minimum you need is a very comfortable knowledge of basic Microsoft Office: you need to be able to write emails and do basic reports on Excel using formulas with sum and vlookup,” says Kelly. He adds that at this level, you won’t need to know industry specific software as you will be trained on the job.
Moran says that, at entry-level, they look for attitude rather than aptitude. “We look for genuine interest in technology and a desire to learn, rather than expect candidates to already have in-depth knowledge of the online software and apps we use,” she explains.
A more senior, qualified staff member will be expected to be conversant with specialised accounting software. “However, as software differs from firm to firm, they will be given time and training on the specific software their new firm is using,” says Russell Smith, managing director at Russell Smith Accountants. They also must be able to use other tools of the trade, for example the often complex systems of the HMRC. “This is becoming essential with the HMRC turning more digital,” Smith says.
Generally, the higher up the ranks you are, the more tech-savvy you need to be as your role is likely to be more analytical and advisory.
“Business intelligence tools are becoming self-service, so more senior job candidates are expected to be able to slice and dice data and build complex reports,” says Greg Statham, managing consultant at recruitment consultancy Macildowie. He also points out that some employers are already investing in robotics, which may eventually eradicate the need for clerical finance staff, so the ability to analyse and give insight will become a critical skill to have.
At managerial level, your role may involve managing a remote workforce. “This is a key skill now that working in the cloud is taking off,” says Hoey. He adds that at that level you still need a highly technical level of experience around cloud-based software even though the technology and your staff do all the legwork.
There’s no denying that finance is no place for technophobes.
Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.