“Gentlemen we can rebuild him
We have the technology
We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man
Steve Austin will be that man
Better than he was before
Better, Stronger, Faster”
So went the opening of the iconic 1970s tv show, “The Six Million Dollar Man”. In that program, a NASA astronaut is rebuilt using bionic technology after being nearly killed in an experiment. I’ve been thinking a lot about that classic opening lately in connection with a very different theme from rebuilt action heroes: rebuilding the management accountant in the 21st century.
Just as astronaut Steve Austin was at first seen as downgraded and unable to function due to his injuries, much has been made of the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on the finance profession, leading some to believe that traditional accountants have somehow been made obsolete. There is a grain of truth to this narrative. According to a 2017 study covered in an article for The Wall Street Journal, two-thirds of global companies planned to automate some or most of their finance tasks within the next two to three years.
But finance professionals worried about being replaced by AI should understand that while tasks may be automated, there will always be jobs in the finance function. That’s where the accountant’s equivalent of Austin’s bionic upgrade comes in -- upskilling, certification and ongoing training and education. Rather than seeing technology as a threat or replacement, finance leaders and staff alike need to view it as a strategic enhancement – a way for accountants to upgrade themselves to do things they never before could do, no longer bogged down by the monotony of routine bookkeeping and reporting tasks.
A recent article by IMA’s CEO, Jeff Thomson, published in CFO Magazine, elaborated on the core competencies that management accountants in the 21st century will need – in other words, the new appendages they will require to become the “Six Million Dollar Men and Women” of their professions. These include:
- Analysis – Instead of just reporting, let’s find out the “why” behind the numbers. Management accountants need to deliver concrete, actionable insights into issues related to cash flow, profits, expenses and supply chains.
- Planning – Using skills related to budgeting and forecasting, management accountants need to help senior leaders draft strategic plans that address business problems and lead to long-term growth.
- Leadership – They have to be able to manage teams of people and execute their plans from start to finish, not merely make recommendations and leave implementation to others.
These skills were never explicitly required of finance professionals, but as the age of automation renders the “bean counting” aspects of the job redundant, these areas will have to serve as the building blocks of a reimagined profession.
Another vital aspect of these shifts in the field is how technology can unlock never-before-seen potential to gain insights and translate them into growth-driving strategies. As the 2019 IMA report “The Impact of Big Data on Finance Now and in the Future” made clear, the ability to accumulate massive amounts of data equips finance professionals with analytical powers beyond the comprehension of previous generations, provided they are able to master analytics along with the other competencies mentioned above. In upskilling and training staff, finance professionals can rely on advanced certification programs like the CMA, which includes technology and analytics as competencies alongside decision analysis, risk management and investment decisions.
Technology, then, is a way to make management accountants better, stronger and faster than they were before, not just a way to cut staff. Those in the profession who understand this will survive and thrive in the age of automation.