Technology, talent lead 2019 trends for accountants in the Asia-Pacific

A robot is demonstrated during the Japan Robot Week 2018. Data analytics and technologies such as the cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) are creating new or improved roles.

Trend watch 2019: The outlook for accountants in the Asia-Pacific region has never been more stirring, but the biggest rewards will come to firms and individuals who are on the front foot.

The evolution of accountants from number-crunchers to trusted business analysts and advisers continues at speed. With the Australian and New Zealand economies in relatively good shape and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting that Asia will account for more than 60 per cent of world economic growth (in its May 2018 Regional Economic Outlook: Asia Pacific report, the IMF projected Asia to grow at 5.6 per cent in 2018 and 2019), the Asia-Pacific region is creating enormous opportunities for finance professionals. Simultaneously, data analytics and technologies such as the cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) are creating new or improved roles.

Agnes Chan FCPA, EY managing partner, Hong Kong and Macau, says in such an environment the focus has switched from fears of technology killing jobs to ensuring that accountants who see the opportunities can shine: “This entrepreneurial spirit is about being willing to try new things and having the courage to embrace change,” Chan says. 

“These are important elements for accountants to move forward – we are no longer the very prudent bean counters. We are business advisers and we move with changes in the business world.”

Chan cites World Economic Forum forecasts indicating that the rapid take-up of machines and algorithms in the workplace could create 133 million new roles, replacing about 75 million that could be displaced between now and 2022. The key for firms such as EY will be to prepare employees for jobs that may not even exist now “in order to survive in a future tech world”.

Andrew Heng FCPA, Baker Tilly Malaysia group managing partner, says the pace of technology advances is constantly redefining the business ecosystem, putting pressure on accountants, regulators and education providers to keep up.

The speed at which cross-border business is concluded and the connectivity of world financial systems has also given rise to very complex financial transactions, Heng says.

“To be of value and to be on top of things, accountants and auditors have no choice but to be well-versed in, or at least well-informed about, how all these transactions take place.”

Heng suggests traditional accounting education systems will have to change to stay relevant, while professional accounting bodies, standard setters and accountants must work together more closely than ever before “to ensure that future accountants are armed with knowledge, not only for the current environment, but also to cater for the next wave of change”.

Economic powerhouses: Asia-Pacific markets are among the most dynamic

Asia and Australasia stand ready to benefit from expanding markets in which cross-border mergers and acquisitions are strong; Japanese companies are targeting the Asia-Pacific region and the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative in China, also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), is having flow-on effects around the world.

Optimism among small businesses is also creating opportunities for accounting and finance professionals. CPA Australia’s Asia-Pacific Small Business Survey 2017 highlights growing confidence among business owners with fewer than 20 employees, with those that concentrate on technology, innovation and exporting being significantly more likely to grow and create jobs than those that are less proactive. Indonesia, Vietnam and China lead the way in terms of small business confidence.

“We are no longer the very prudent bean counters. We are business advisers and we move with changes in the business world.” Agnes Chan, EY

As accounting and financial services firms respond to such trends, much of their emphasis will be on the battle to foster and retain talent, while also deploying their leading people around the region to ensure the best results for clients.

John Teer, KPMG’s Hong Kong-based chief operating officer, Asia-Pacific, says there is an ongoing shift of talent within the region.

“A fundamental plank of our firm’s Asia-Pacific strategy is to facilitate movement of our talent and capability, regardless of their geography, to make sure we’re bringing the best of our capabilities to our clients, regardless of where they are located.”

Despite some cultural and language idiosyncrasies in markets such as Japan and South Korea, Teer says most major clients are becoming “agnostic about borders”. He says there are significant opportunities to work more collaboratively across the region at a time when Asia-Pacific markets are among the most dynamic in the world.

“A lot of [the thinking and innovation] is coming out of Japan, Singapore, China and Australia, so it’s an exciting time to be part of the region.”

Digital demand in accounting

As artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology strips away some of the mundane accounting work, there is a growing belief that by 2020, or soon thereafter, labour-intensive tasks such as tax preparation, payroll, audits and banking will be fully automated.

With real-time information at hand, the challenge for accountants will be to expand their advisory roles and to help make sense of the facts, figures and information gathered.

Geoff Lamont, who leads Deloitte’s assurance and advisory practice in Sydney, adds that accountants can further drive home the trust factor at a time when Australia’s Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry has shone light on unethical corporate behaviour and led to calls for a stronger social agenda. Accountants can play a role in strengthening business standards and rebuilding trust in companies.

“We’re looking much broader in terms of where we find the capability that we need to help our clients with their issues.” John Teer, KPMG Australia

“Finance has traditionally been seen as the part of an organisation that is responsible for that kind of integrity of reporting and output and [acting as a] data custodian,” Lamont says.

Smithink director and accounting firm consultant David Smith FCPA insists that the time is ripe for accountants to ramp up their financial planning services, while the banks’ wealth management arms are on the nose.

“There’s a pretty unique opportunity for the accounting profession to step into that gap and be the trusted provider of those types of financial planning services,” Smith says. He expects a fee-for-service model to prevail, “which fits closely to how accountants think and work”.

A recent CommBank Accounting Market Pulse report reaffirms the sentiment, noting that 43 per cent of firms are looking to either start offering financial planning and wealth management services or build on their existing services in these areas.

Changing skill sets for accountants and finance professionals

Clearly, disrupted markets will require new skill sets as accountants and finance professionals respond to client needs.

In 2018, a list of traits that accountants will need to master was one of the most tweeted comments to emerge from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) ENGAGE event in Las Vegas. On the list? Complex problem-solving; critical thinking; creativity; people management; coordinating with others; emotional intelligence; judgement and decision-making; service orientation; negotiation; and cognitive flexibility.

Teer says the mix of skills at his firm is changing as KPMG invests heavily in AI tools, robotics and data analytics.

“Gone are the days when firms like KPMG and the other Big Four firms look to the economics and accounting faculties of universities to recruit 90 per cent of their people,” he notes. “We’re looking much broader in terms of where we find the capability that we need to help our clients with their issues.”

That means graduates from STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – are in big firms’ sights.

According to Chan, soft skills and a capacity for data analysis will be a must-have for many accountants, adding that “STEM has now become STEAM”, given recent calls for artistic skills within professional services firms. She endorses an ABC approach for graduates and employees whereby they have the right attitude to embrace change and learn new things; develop business acumen and market knowledge; and foster communication skills.

“Being tech savvy is good, but that personal touch is also important,” Chan emphasises.

James Wood, associate director of accounting and finance at recruitment firm Hudson, says the picture is somewhat different for small and medium-sized firms. While technological aptitude is vital, these firms are still drawing most of their new talent from a traditional accounting and finance background.

Wood, nevertheless, suggests that clients want commercially astute accountants, not just  those with technical skills. For example, the best international financial reporting standards (IFRS) analysts are “not the ones stuck in a library looking at standards”.

“It’s the guys who can recognise what that means for the business and how it impacts the P&L and to work with operations, the general manager and sales to find the best solution,” he says.

For those seeking to fine-tune their skills, Wood advocates developing natural curiosity in addition to three traits: a continuous improvement mindset, critical thinking, and excellent communication skills.

Lamont expects firms to devote considerable attention to the composition of their teams, ensuring there is a right mix of technical skills, analytics and communications talent so they can develop effective digital solutions for clients.

“That’s when you start to find more powerful solutions to problems,” he states.

2019 and beyond

Despite a likely economic slowdown in Hong Kong in the next 12 months, Chan is confident EY will garner a lot of additional work because of government initiatives and regulatory changes, including a recent move to allow companies with dual-class shares to list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as part of efforts to become a listing destination for the region’s hottest tech companies. Fallout for clients from US-China trade tensions also needs to be managed.

“I’m seeing my advisory services team growing and business-wise, we’ll be doing very well,” Chan says.

Testing South Korea's manned walking robot, developed by Korea Future Technology, in Gumpo, South Korea.

Testing South Korea's manned walking robot, developed by Korea Future Technology, in Gumpo, South Korea.

Now in her 35th year as an accountant, Chan reflects with amazement that she is now receiving and responding to emails from robots that assist her staff with a range of functions. 

“I’m finding that I’m still learning because things are just changing so fast, especially with AI and all this technology.”

Smith envisages exciting times ahead for Asia-Pacific finance professionals, as business models become more complex and technology changes the way value is delivered, but he believes the sector needs to become more sexy. If not, he fears a talent crunch could hurt firms because young students have the choice of so many exciting degrees and career options.

“We need to be acting fast because as baby boomers leave the profession, it’s a real worry as to whether we have enough new [graduates] coming through to replace them.”

Heng believes 2019 will be an important year of consolidation and rethinking of priorities around resource allocation, training staff and reimagining what the workplace could look like in years to come. However, as technology changes have an impact on businesses and the community, he urges his peers to “never forget basic human decency”.

“Treat people with respect, with humility,” he says. “All else being equal, these are the things that will matter and the things that will set you apart.”

Lamont says he and his colleagues at Deloitte are determined to focus on achieving seamless service across an Asia-Pacific region that presents myriad strengths and demands.

“In order to bring the best value to our clients, we need to make sure we’re taking strength of capability from different parts of the region. How, for example, do we take things that we’ve done well in the Korean market and make them relevant elsewhere and vice versa?”

However, rather than being daunted by such challenges, Lamont welcomes them. “It’s an exciting time to be an accountant,” he says.

Salary outlook: temper your expectations

Do not expect massive salary hikes in 2019, unless you can bring unique skills to the table. That’s the message from recruitment firms in Australia, as accountants prepare to showcase their talent in an ever more complex business environment.

However, Hays regional director David Cawley says it is not all bad news and employees are seeing “quite good salary movements” depending on their specialty. In its 2018-19 salary guide, Hays reports that Australian accountants will see rising demand for their skills on the back of a strong labour force and the burgeoning amount of data within organisations. 

Those with data analysis skills will be especially valuable as they help organisations deploy technology-based solutions. Cawley notes that most accounting and finance sector employers have been offering less than a 3 per cent salary rise, with about one in 10 employers offering no increase at all. However, if a candidate has strong skills that align with the direction of a business, they may receive incentives such as cash bonuses, extra superannuation, or compensation for vehicle expenses.

Hudson’s James Wood says “there’s not a lot of movement” with remuneration in the Australian market, based on his firm’s 2018 salary survey, with the majority of pay rises between 1–5 per cent.

Accountants with niche skills or specialised technical nous may receive bigger wage hikes, but they are unlikely to be enormous.

“It’s all down to the fact that there’s a bit of a recalibration and businesses are more commercially astute. Unless you have a skill that nobody else has, which is rare, then it doesn’t change too much.”

The view from Vietnam

The Vietnamese Government’s embrace of electronic invoicing (e-invoices) is creating jobs growth for finance professionals, according to Nam Nguyen FCPA.

“The government’s introduction of e-invoices and the recent requirement that all businesses in Vietnam adopt e-invoices by 2020 is creating lots of business opportunities for accounting software developers and e-accounting service providers,” Nguyen says. “Of course, [it has led to] opportunities for accountants who transition from handling paper-based invoicing work to e-invoicing work.”

A former managing director of BDO Consulting Vietnam whose career has also included stints at PwC, KPMG and EY, Nguyen now runs his own consultancy business, Nam Nguyen Consulting Co., and is regarded as one of Vietnam’s leading tax advisers.

He says key developments in the accounting field in the Vietnamese market in recent years include harmonisation of accounting standards with IFRS, continuing development of the regulatory framework for auditors and practising accountants and reporting framework for listed companies, as well as segregation of duties of corporate executives from executive positions at banks.

Nguyen notes there are increasing demands for experienced and qualified accountants and finance professionals in Vietnam, as many businesses are transitioning from a family business to a corporate structure or pursuing IPO listings.

On the recruitment front, he says employers nowadays prefer accountants who can assume roles beyond traditional bookkeeping, compliance and reporting.

“They prefer accountants who have soft skills such as communication skills, analytical skills, business vision and leadership skills.”

Read next: Soft skills or technical skills? How accountants stay relevant in a changing world.


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February 2019
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