Features | From Pivot Magazine

What will your job look like in 10 years?

To thrive in the future, CPAs will need to define it. Inside Foresight, the project to reimagine the profession.

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Teresa FortneyTeresa Fortney (Photograph by Riley Smith)

Fifteen minutes north of Halifax, there’s a giant lobster on the side of the highway. You can’t miss it. It’s perched atop a sign that says Clearwater, its crimson antennae and faded claws beckoning to motorists to pull over and pick up some seafood. Inside a white-and-blue storefront, customers can pluck lobsters from a cross-shaped reservoir or buy scallops by the pound off beds of ice. Locals who regularly make the pilgrimage know that the only way to get fresher shellfish is to catch it themselves.

What those locals may not know is that, beyond the back wall of that shop, the roadside facility is also the HQ of Clearwater Seafoods, an industry giant that did $621 million in gross sales across the globe in 2017. The best place to see the entire operation in action is inside the office of its chief financial officer, Teresa Fortney. From her window, the come-from-away FCPA can watch sailboats cruise through the Bedford Basin. From her desk, she monitors every aspect of the business, including dozens of processing facilities and vessels across the world, sales in 45 countries, as well as the storage and distribution centre downstairs, where every hour employees send and receive truckloads of lobsters.

It may not look—or smell—like a typical CPA’s office. Nor does Fortney always employ what some might consider typical CPA knowledge. “Accounting practices and audit standards are a piece of my credibility as CPA, but they don’t define who I am or what I do on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “The only person who asks me questions about accounting standards is my auditor.”

Then again, there is no such thing as a typical CPA. Fortney saw that firsthand last fall, when she was one of about 40 participants—accounting firm execs, entrepreneurs, regulators, academics, government representatives, sustainability experts, technology leaders, and professional accountants working in business and industry—to participate in a series of three roundtables on the future of the accounting profession. The sessions were a central element of an ambitious CPA Canada project called Foresight, an ongoing multi-stakeholder process to reimagine the profession. In person and online, the Foresight process asked more than 1,200 CPAs and non-CPAs: in a world of emerging technologies, changing demographics and new geopolitical pressures, what role should the Canadian accounting profession play?

“We can’t rest on tradition. We can’t just be the keepers of finance. We have to drive change.”

Over the three roundtables, Fortney and her fellow participants debated all the thorny questions that dog the future of accounting: will artificial intelligence replace auditors? Are historical financial statements becoming obsolete? How much should CPAs know about Big Data, machine learning and blockchain?

Those are not easy questions to answer. “At the roundtables, everybody came together with their own experiences, contexts and frames of reference,” says Fortney. When they thought about what it meant to be a CPA, they thought about their own careers. “People were simplifying it into their own paradigm. Foresight stretched everybody to think about more than their own path and experience. My perspective as CFO of Clearwater might not be the same as the perspectives of the 39 other people.”

But those 39 viewpoints were equally important to the process. “Teresa brought an important perspective as a CPA working within a business,” says Tashia Batstone, FCPA, CPA Canada’s senior vice-president of external relations and business development. “She stressed that we have to think not only about reporting and measuring, but about the strategic role that CPAs play co-piloting an organization in conjunction with the senior management team. Finding new ways to unlock and create value in an organization is core to what she does as a CFO.”

Finding ways to create value is also a central theme of the report that emerged from Foresight’s first phase, which hints at a bold, perhaps unfamiliar vision of accounting. It asks, if the heart of yesterday’s accounting profession was equating value to tangible assets and historical based financial statements, what about today and tomorrow? What skills and proficiencies should Canadian CPAs have in the information age, whether they work in a firm, a start-up or a seafood business? Where can they provide value? Perhaps the Canadian CPAs of 2030 will be not just auditors and accountants, but guardians of data integrity, ensuring the information that flows in and out of AI applications is accurate and unbiased. Or they may be stewards of the planet, measuring intangibles like sustainability as robustly as they record financial information.

“It’s a very traditional profession, and it hasn’t had a massive shift in a very long time.”

Companies will always need business partners and trusted advisers who can provide professional judgment, but what it means to be that adviser is changing. Foresight is trying to get ahead of that change and shape it. “We can’t rest on tradition. We can’t just be the keepers of finance,” says Joy Thomas, FCPA, the president and CEO of CPA Canada. “We have to look at things differently. I know the profession has a future that is valuable and bright and exciting. But to get there, we can’t wait for the change to drive us. We have to be the ones who drive the change.”

For decades, the accounting profession has followed a familiar storyline. “Something happens, regulators come in, a change gets made, more rules get put in and we adapt,” says Thomas. “It’s a very traditional profession, and it hasn’t had a massive shift in a very long time.”

Since 2015, CPA Canada has been trying to interrupt that cycle. The organization released the “Drivers of Change” report, which considered how economic, environmental, technological, societal and geopolitical forces would transform the world in the near future, and how CPAs might employ those drivers in their organizations’ strategies. The takeaway: if CPAs don’t actively prepare, they risk confronting their “Uber moment,” says Batstone. “At CPA Canada, we see it as our responsibility to make sure our members are prepared to change and adapt and continue to add value in a dynamic business world.”

Tim Herrod, a roundtable participant from Saskatoon, agrees. “This is not a comfortable process, but it’s a valuable investment,” says Herrod, CPA, a senior external advisor with Bain and Company who specialized in procurement transformation. “Many other professions sit back and look at the world and wonder why things are changing. CPA Canada is doing something strategic and essential.”

More than 1,200 people were consulted in Foresight’s in-person roundtables and online forums

When CPA Canada launched Foresight, they looked at what their international counterparts were doing to prepare for the future. “Accounting bodies around the world have been talking about the future of the profession in terms of financial reporting and finance,” says Batstone. Notable projects in the U.S. and the U.K. are rethinking audit altogether. The Foresight team wanted to go further. “We wanted to understand the future of business—where we’re moving as an economy, how to best position ourselves as professional accountants, and how we can serve and support business leaders while being true business leaders ourselves.”

To do so, CPA Canada hired Catalytic Governance, an agency that helps organizations strategically plot the future. Together, they convened the three main roundtables, held a series of smaller consultations and launched SoapBox, an online forum where the entire membership and other stakeholders could weigh in. Using an AI analytical tool called Lexalytics, CPA Canada summarized the online insights and incorporated them into the roundtable discussions and final report. 

At the roundtables, several speakers—including McKinsey Global Institute partner Sree Ramaswamy and former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown—presented on automation, artificial intelligence and the rules that will govern Big Data, among other topics. The roundtable participants then developed four “scenarios,” plausible visions of the future of the profession and the globe at large:

  1. Slow and Steady: a world in which the international community values stability above all else. Nations cooperate, but heavy regulation and risk aversion stifle the pace of innovation. Few meaningful steps are taken to combat climate change.
  2. Phoenix Rising: after a series of economic and climate crises, global powers band together to embrace collaboration and transformative change. Smart regulation encourages progress without letting it run wild, achieving major progress in technology, sustainability and inequality.
  3. Tech Titans: without a concerted effort from governments and regulators, global tech firms dominate the economy and dictate the direction of the planet. While mass innovation improves the world in some ways, it also leads to inequality and job insecurity.
  4. My Way: a future in which the planet embraces neither transformative change nor a common global purpose. National governments turn inward, leaving the world more vulnerable to inequality, climate crises and geopolitical friction à la Brexit.

The scenarios were not meant to definitively predict the future, but to show four plausible versions of it. Once the roundtable participants realized what all scenarios had in common, they debated—often passionately—what skills and services would be most valuable in all four of those possible futures. Most importantly, which of those would CPAs be best suited to provide?

Amar Ahluwalia knows speed can be unnerving. His customers told him so. He’s the vice-president of partnerships and capital markets at the online lender OnDeck, a company that uses more than 2,000 data points from more than 100 real-time sources to make small-business lending decisions. In fact, the pace of the information was so breakneck that users complained it was overwhelming. “We’ve actually had to slow our model down so customers don’t find it too fast,” he told a Foresight roundtable in October.

That speech led to a vigorous discussion among the roundtable participants. For starters, what was all that data, where was it coming from and could it be trusted? And if OnDeck was relying on real-time data instead of historical based financial statements, where did that leave accountants and auditors?

“I don’t think all CPAs need to be data scientists. But I do think we need to understand the science of data.”

A cynic might answer: jobless. But an optimist might instead see the opportunity in OnDeck’s story. Data is messy and incessant. The flow of data (everything from stock prices to industrial gauge readings to social media posts) has multiplied 45-fold since 2005, according to McKinsey. Those figures and tweets might not be important individually, but data as whole is the fuel that powers artificial intelligence, the technology that can teach cars how to drive themselves and predict the outcome of a tax-law court case, among other revolutionary applications across virtually every industry.

On Deck’s platform didn’t need more data, whether from audited statements or real-time stats. It needed someone to make sense of the information, verify it and know when to question it. “I think there’s a huge role there for the CPA to play in that,” says Batstone. “The profession needs to shift from hindsight to foresight. Given the need for real-time decision-making, the ability to wait for historical based financial statements is no longer a luxury most businesses can afford. They require data to support their decisions, and that data must be available in real time. I don’t think all CPAs need to be data scientists. But I do think we need to understand the science of data.”

In many cases, the data won’t be financial at all. “If we have all of our eggs in the basket of measuring financial value,” says Batstone, “we may be focusing on things that aren’t really relevant to business users and investors today.” They may be more focused on, say, sustainability. At Clearwater, Fortney’s colleagues work with government and the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent non-profit, to measure the sustainability of their fisheries, a renewable resource. But they don’t measure sustainability directly within their business. It wasn’t that the topic hadn’t come up. “Being in the seafood industry, sustainability is top of mind for us. We live it every day. We label and package that way,” she says. “But once you get to the financial package we prepare at the end of the year, none of that is woven in.”

So, after returning from the Foresight roundtables, Fortney started looking for ways to weave it in and help readers truly understand Clearwater’s sustainability and innovation story. “These are not easy things to measure or report on,” says Batstone. The profession is exploring approaches, such as integrated reporting, to measure and report on other sources of value, such as natural and human capital. However, there is still inconsistency in the marketplace. Even if businesses decide to report on their sustainability or the integrity of their data, their reporting may not be consistent from company to company, or even necessarily comparable from year to year, Batstone explains. “It’s a bit of a Wild West.”

“We, as a profession, have a lot of expertise in frameworks and standards, so there’s a role for us to play.”

The second phase of Foresight, currently underway, will determine how CPAs can become sheriffs in that Wild West. “We, as a profession, have a lot of expertise in frameworks and standards, so there’s a role for us to play,” says Thomas. The profession has relationships with government, regulators, standard-setters, private and public companies, international accounting bodies and more than 217,000 members. “There’s no one stakeholder in our ecosystem that can drive change alone,” says Thomas. But CPA Canada is in the unique position to bring all those stakeholders to the same table.

Foresight Phase Two working groups will research how the profession can work with regulators, standard-setters and other stakeholders to better understand the role professional accountants can play in areas such as data standardization and new models of creating, identifying, measuring and reporting value. They’ll also ask important questions about the skills and competencies that CPAs will need to succeed in the information age. With technologies changing so rapidly, CPAs will need to be adaptable and resilient, and embrace change by undertaking a continuous process of learning, unlearning and relearning.

Their answers may lead to a very different kind of accountancy, starting with the way CPAs are trained. “This is going to come down to new CPAs,” says Herrod. “If we’re going to have an impact on the profession in 2030, it starts with education: who are we attracting, why are they deciding to come to the profession and how are we preparing them for what the market needs?” He argues that the designation should eschew highly technical training in favour of valuable core competencies—whether that’s general business acumen or enabling skills like negotiation and problem solving—on top of which CPAs can develop specialized knowledge.

Still, for every new competency that enters the certification program—e.g., data analytics, accounting for the sharing economy—something must come out. Herrod, for one, questions whether CPAs need to learn the fine print of audit. “Digital automation and artificial intelligence could give us the ability to complete many audit procedures without any humans involved,” he says. “If we want to stake our profession on that, we won’t have a profession.” Ultimately, the decision comes down to: what skills will the CPAs of 2030 need?

Teresa Fortney would like to know—not just for herself, but for her daughter. While Fortney will leave Clearwater this year to pursue opportunities closer to her family in Ontario, her daughter, who is currently pursuing her CPA designation, will continue to work in the audit practice of a large firm. Fortney wonders if her daughter’s future job even exists yet. “In another five or ten years, I’ll be joking with her, ‘So tell me, how does audit connect to what you’re doing now?’”

Fortney is excited, not scared, to watch it all unfold. “It would be easy to see all the change that’s going on in the world, the environment and the political arena and be fearful of it,” she says. But speaking to other CPAs and realizing they all want to work together to remain relevant, she’s optimistic. “It becomes less scary. There might not be a definitive path forward. But Foresight is helping set the direction. It’s starting to get a little bit clearer.”

What’s next for the accounting profession? With exponential shifts in technology, globalization, business models, geopolitics, and societal values and norms, the time for transformation is now—or CPAs risk falling behind. Learn more about the key findings from Phase One and how these insights will influence the second phase of the Foresight initiative. Visit cpacanada.ca/foresight-initiative to download the Phase One report and find out how you can join the digital conversation.