Digital transformation: There’s a (big) role for CPAs
Few professions have the skills in strategy and governance that CPAs do (Westend61/Getty Images)
One of the standout trends from the pandemic has been the accelerated pace of digital adoption in organizations. And as that trend continues to gather steam, it is highlighting the essential role that CPAs can play in digitization.
“CPAs can provide some real value to organizations at every stage of the digital transformation process,” says CPA Obed Maurice, a partner at Avail CPA in Lethbridge, AB. “So it’s definitely worth developing some competency in this area.”
If you are interested in getting involved in digital transformation, either as part of an organization’s leadership team or as a service provider, here are some foundational skills that you bring to the table. (For resources that can help you to develop your tech skills, see Tech stop: Resources for building your digital skills.)
KNOWING HOW TO ASK (AND ANSWER) THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Long before an organization starts transforming its systems, it needs to tackle some big questions that will define how it moves forward.
“Organizations often don’t know where to start,” says Stephanie Terrill, CPA, business unit leader, management consulting, at KPMG in Canada. “They don’t know how to piece together the overall architecture for their business to adapt quickly to changing market conditions or customers. CPAs can really help in that respect.”
Maurice agrees. “I spend a lot of time advising companies on how to approach innovation—in particular, how to decide where to spend the dollars. Making those decisions is really difficult for business owners who have spent their lifetimes building their businesses. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of stress.”
KNOWING HOW TO DEAL WITH DATA
CPAs are highly qualified to act as stewards over data. As Maurice explains, “We have a deep knowledge of internal controls and risk and reporting and analyzing. Plus, ethics is a huge hot button. We know how to ask questions such as, ‘How are we collecting this data on our clients, and how can we use it? What's appropriate? What are the privacy requirements?’ ”
Terrill adds that CPAs are exceptionally skilled at seeing trends and value in data. “Where technologists may be focused on technology for the sake of technology, CPAs can say, ‘What does this do for our business?’ Not only do we know what data is important, but we know how to interpret it, synthesize it and communicate it to drive change.”
TRAINING IN STRATEGY
No organization would embark on their digital journey without a road map. And with their training in strategy and governance, CPAs have the skills to lead the development of such a map.
“We spend a lot of time thinking strategy to ensure we’re solving the right or anticipated problems and using resources efficiently,” says Maurice. “Few professions have the skills in this area that CPAs do.”
Terrill has a similar take. “CPAs know all about capital planning and enterprise governance. “They can say, ‘You need to put aside money for this technology, because it is going to bring you growth.’”
AN ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH IMPACT
CPAs have the right training to assemble the decision-makers in an organization and establish a clear focus and business strategy to help them drive long-term value.
“Many CPAs have been fortunate to be in boardrooms since the beginning of their careers,” says Terrill. “And they’ve really learned how to synthesize. They can help executives understand the case for change. It’s all about communicating with impact.”
Terrill adds that CPAs’ knowledge of risk is also an important differentiator. “Often, I see the C-levels and boards struggling to understand the real risk that organizations are taking on. And CPAs think about risk and opportunities in different ways than technologists do."
A CAPACITY FOR BUILDING TRUST
System selection is an important stage in the digitization process, and it’s one where CPAs can play a decisive role.
“As CPAs, we have high standards around functionality and privacy,” says Maurice. “And people trust our recommendations. They know that in order to deliver trustworthy recommendations, we need to have done our homework—we are not just Googling systems at the last minute. We have a technology stack in mind when we’re chatting with our clients.”
Terrill agrees. “The world of technology is a big-money world where pressure from salespeople can be high. That’s why CPAs, with their capacity for due diligence, are well suited to weigh in on decisions. When a CPA signs off, it drives trust at the board and executive level.”
LEADING PEOPLE AND PROCESSES
Digital transformation (like any kind of transformation) requires flexibility, curiosity and a healthy amount of change management. As Maurice puts it, “Much of my job involves helping people adapt themselves to this changing world—helping them understand what tech is available to them, and how we can use it to monetize business opportunities.”
Terrill adds that to lead people through digitization, CPAs also need be open to technology themselves. “We have so many of the core foundational skills that can differentiate us if we open our minds not necessarily to “doing” the technology—as in coding, for example—but to actually understanding how technology affects organizations from governance right through to operational impact. If we do, I think we are destined to play a really pivotal role in this area.”
STAYING ONE TECH AHEAD
Learn more about the steps in digital transformation, and the tools and knowledge needed. And for ways to develop your grounding in technology, see Tech stop: Resources for building your digital skills.
Plus, see how the CPA profession’s new Competency Map 2.0 will prepare CPAs for a changing environment, while maintaining their core capabilities.