Accountant turned futurist, Jim Carroll, will open the National Forum on Technology Solutions with his keynote speech in Toronto on May 28-29. Carroll believes that, given the technological changes of the future, CPAs need to have “just-in-time knowledge; the right knowledge at the right time for the right purpose.”

Innovation | Artificial Intelligence

How I learned to stop worrying and love the robot

Jim Carroll, keynote speaker at the National Forum on Technology Solutions in May, discusses riding the wave and embracing our technological future

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Jim Carroll is a CPA but also a global futurist—advising organizations like NASA (on the future of space), Disney (the future of consumer interaction), Mercedes Benz (the future of the automotive industry) and Godiva Chocolates (on the future of food!). Carroll is one of North America’s most in-demand corporate speakers, and has been on the leading edge of technology and innovation ever since leaving a public accounting job in the late 1980s. In May, the author and Fortune 500 consultant opens the inaugural National Forum on Technology Solutions in Toronto—a conference bringing together technology suppliers, financial professionals and leading thinkers in the field. All the big issues will be on the table, from big data to AI to blockchain. CPA Canada talked to Carroll in advance of his keynote speech.

You started off as an accountant. How do you go from there to being a futurist?
I was with one of the predecessor firms of EY and KPMG from ’79 to ’88. I just got very involved with microcomputers, as they called them way back then, and I ended up in the national office of the firm and I built this [internal network]—it was sort-of a predecessor to the Internet. From ’85 to ’89, I had 3,500 people on our internal network with email and online collaboration and file sharing and all the stuff that we find today. I was talking about the firm of the future—and then we had a merger and the firms didn’t understand what I was talking about. So, I left and started my own consulting business.

Did you see any potential redundancy for accountants, working on that microcomputer 30-plus years ago?
No. I wasn’t really focused on that. I was focused on how can we enhance our skills and enhance our capabilities and enhance our ability for collaboration. I wasn’t really into the whole automation bugaboo, which I still think is somewhat overplayed these days. I have absolutely no regrets for what the profession has provided me. I think the fact that I can sit down with a CEO of a Fortune 500 company with billions in revenue and have an intelligent conversation with him or her, about the disruptive trends impacting their business—I think I can do that, with a large degree of credibility and capability, because of my background as a CPA.

When you talk to finance professionals, what is their number one fear nowadays regarding technology?
I think it’s making it work. I just spoke at an ERP conference in Chicago yesterday, talking about what we need to do to make sure the infrastructure we’re putting in place can support the fast change business is undergoing and the complexity of making it work. Look at what’s happened to Sobeys or Loblaw or any company that puts in place large sophisticated financial systems. It always turns out to be way more complex than you think.

One of the most disruptive technologies that’s getting talked about is blockchain. How do you see that affecting people in the financial world?
Ever hear of the Gartner Hype Cycle? Gartner is a technology research firm, and years ago they said any technology that comes into the world goes through a curve. It hits a Peak of Inflated Expectations—crazy amounts of hype, everybody gets excited—then people realize it’s not real, it hits the Trough of Disillusionment and then eventually what we call the Plateau of Productivity. So put ecommerce on the curve, the dot-com years, crazy silliness, the dot-com collapse—and now Amazon is completely changing the world. 3D printing fits on the curve. And bitcoin and blockchain fit on the curve. Bitcoin and things like that are little blips on the horizon, but as a long-term transformative trend that will shape the world of accounting, blockchain is very, very real. It’s just going to take time for it to play out.

Do you see parallels, in terms of the dot-com bubble, to what’s happening in bitcoin and blockchain?
I see fraud. I see massive fraud. I see shysters, I see scams; people have come out with code that is hijacking WordPress sites to do mining of Monero. It’s just ridiculous at this point. Last year, in one of my little end-of-year trend summaries, I said 2018 is going to be the year of bitcoin and blockchain fraud. It’s just gone over the top and it happened in the dot-com years. The parallels are uncanny.

How about some of the other technologies that are disrupting finance? There’s been a lot of talk about robots taking over some functions.
I’m a skeptic of that. If you go to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1930s, there were all these articles of hysteria about the giant robot brains that were going to take away our jobs. It’s the same talk today: that we’re all going to be automated and auditing is going to be automated. What people don’t talk about is, as jobs transition and disappear, new jobs and new skills appear and new capabilities appear. And so, yeah, a lot of standard routine stuff might be automated and disappear, but with that come new capabilities.

Given future technological changes, what do you think the skill set of a CPA needs to be five years from now?
We’ve got to have the ability for just-in-time knowledge; the right knowledge at the right time for the right purpose. I can get on a call with a client, and I’ve got the ability in 15 minutes to zip into a very powerful online research service and I can quickly become a quasi-expert on the issues on the table—just like that. I think that’s one of the most important powerful skills I’ve developed over 30 years. You need more of that; the ability to quickly know where to go to get the right information for the right situation.