These 4 Trends Are Changing Accounting (Even If No One Knows It Yet)

By Fergus Cleaver

Like death and taxes, accounting is one of those things that just…is. (To be fair, accounting does intimately involve at least one of those things.)

Seriously: It’s only a small exaggeration to say that the field of accounting is one of the few human professions that always was, always is and probably always will be. But that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of reinventing itself.

In point of fact, accounting has seen more changes this decade than at any point in living memory. While it’s never safe to chance at predicting the future, it’s nevertheless fair to bet that these changes will continue—and maybe accelerate—in the coming years. That could have major ramifications for younger accountants, students contemplating accounting careers and children not yet old enough to know what they want to do with their lives, other than be astronauts.

Most important, the changes rocking the world of accounting will affect the millions of practitioners currently in the prime of their careers—too young to retire, for sure, but (feeling) too set in their ways to adapt to radical change.

For all those affected by the changes rocking the world of accounting, and those interested for whatever obscure reason, these are the four crucial accounting trends you need to understand now.

1. Accounting Now Lives in the Cloud

Modern accounting is built on the back of an increasingly powerful, increasingly intelligent (e.g., HubDoc) set of cloud software solutions. This is a tremendous time-saver for human accountants, and a potentially game-changing value for small-business owners set on going the DIY route.

2. Business Software Leverages Built-In Accounting Functions

Even as basic accounting functions are digitizing and moving into the cloud, the accounting landscape is becoming ever more diffuse. Case in point: the proliferation of “light accounting” capabilities in dozens of business software programs (most based in the cloud) whose primary or secondary functions have nothing to do with accounting. Look for more of this going forward.

3. Mergers & Acquisitions Will Dominate Corporate Accounting

After a brutal downturn in the wake of the global financial crisis, M&A activity has picked back up in a big way. As accelerating technological change drives consolidation in virtually every industry, this looks to be a secular trend. And that’s big news for young people looking for reliable work in corporate accounting, which has seen its share of lean years.

4. The Gig Economy Is Here to Stay

The gig economy is important for two big reasons. One, as its practitioners grow more ambitious and successful, they need more accounting help than ever. Two, accountants themselves can take advantage of a growing set of lucrative opportunities to work as consultants or hired guns, stringing together full-time-equivalent incomes on the back of high-value, task-based work. The Uber of accounting has yet to be invented, but it’s probably not far off.

This Is What the Future of Accounting & Bookkeeping Looks Like

Accounting isn’t exactly a compelling discipline. Essential to the smooth functioning of the global economy, yes. The stuff of fanboy and fangirl dreams? No.

Accountants like the fact that their industry has, until recently, been relatively insulated from the winds of technology-driven change. They might not be known for their passion or innovative approach to business, but they do enjoy enviable job security. Every business owner needs accounting services, no matter how large or small their enterprise.

First, the good news. Accountants won’t be obsolete anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, the global business community will need the expertise and insight of seasoned, human accountants and bookkeeping professionals.

“Many small-business owners believe that they can effectively replicate the services of an accountant on their own, either in their spare time or through the efforts of a generalist office assistant,” says Fergus Cleaver, a seasoned accounting professional and shareholder in New Zealand-based Cleaver Partners. “This suggests that the field of accounting actually has room to grow. Despite its age and visibility as a discipline, many businesses that require professional accounting services have yet to retain them.”

Now, the bad news: The fields themselves may have room to grow, but the processes of accounting and bookkeeping can’t outrun the accelerating march of history any longer. These disciplines have already changed considerably during the past decade—slowly at first, and lately with redoubled urgency. Over the next 10 years, they’re likely to change even more dramatically, and that change won’t necessarily be kind to the talented professionals who presently make their living as accountants and bookkeepers.

Here’s a look at what’s coming down the line for these fields—and what aspiring financial professionals can do to prepare.

Better Mobile Capabilities

On-the-go accounting? It’s coming, at least according to the experts.

“[The] cloud and mobile devices…will continue to help further integrate technology into all aspects of a CPA’s daily duties,” David Cieslak, CPA/CITP, CGMA, told the Journal of Accountancy. “We refer to this as pervasive computing.”

Cieslak’s “pervasive computing” will allow accountants to perform rote and high-value tasks alike from virtually anywhere—setting automated reports in motion from the back seat of a taxi, for instance, or running money-saving analytic programs from a beach halfway around the world.

Improved Analytics

Speaking of analytics: Accountants have long been data nerds, but they’ve only recently had the powerful algorithms and analytic tools to support deep, illuminating dives into the raft of financial data they deal with every day. New, technology-driven analytic tools allow accounting professionals to be more efficient with their time, effectively duplicating themselves while teasing out data-driven insights with greater efficacy.

Thanks to 21st-century analytics, every accountant is a miniature CPU—a human-machine hybrid who adds tremendous value to the organizations he or she serves.

Opportunities for Experienced Accountants to Tackle Higher-Value Work

Greater value means greater opportunity. As automated software steps up to handle more and more of the rote bookkeeping work that once occupied significant chunks of accounting professionals’ valued time, experienced accountants will have more opportunities to step into more valuable—and more interesting—roles.

Even as entry-level accounting work dries up, controllerships and plum consulting gigs are likely to proliferate, giving ambitious professionals ample opportunity to design firms’ financial architecture, best practices and financial analytics.

“There’s never been a more exciting time to work in this field,” says Cleaver. “Innovation has opened up new, once-unimaginable opportunities for aspiring financial professionals.”

Full-Service Payroll

Bookkeeper 360 reports on an exciting, long-overdue trend in the stodgy world of bookkeeping: full-service payroll.

The post singles out Gusto, a feature-rich automated bookkeeping platform, for its intuitive, labor-saving approach to financial drudgery: “This platform allows for automated pay runs and employee onboarding with data syncing directly to the Xero cloud in live time…[t]his automated feature instantly saves the small business owner from the hassles that come with payroll complexities and other compliance matters.”

Gusto isn’t the only online accounting and bookkeeping platform investing in more robust, feature-rich, convenient payroll applications. What was once a time-consuming and monotonous endeavor will increasingly be a straightforward, if not necessarily fun, exercise—that is, for accountants and bookkeepers willing to cede some responsibility to automated, technology-driven platforms that can organize payroll more efficiently and effectively than humans can.

Unruly Digital Footprints

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) revolution has changed the workplace for the better—mostly. When employees take their devices home with them and freely commingle personal and professional activities on the same hard drive, they expose themselves and their employers to myriad security risks. When those employees store and access sensitive financial information on their devices, the risks increase many-fold.

This is a crucial consideration for accounting professionals charged with keeping their clients (or employers’) financial houses in order. Though accountants can’t be expected to become cybersecurity experts, they can take a simple, proactive step: implementing remote-wipe policies that allow lost or stolen devices’ hard drives to be erased from afar as soon as the loss or theft is discovered.

Don’t Fear the Unknown

Economic dislocation is the defining challenge of our time. It’s now inarguable that the profound changes of the past decade or two are not simply academic shifts best hashed out by eggheads in ivory towers. Collectively, and for better or worse, these changes threaten to undermine the economic status quo that has defined Western life since World War II. They shape our politics, threaten public health and foment social instability. We’re right to worry about what could—and, undoubtedly, will—be.

But that’s not an admonition to fear the future. Everyone with a stake in continued progress, from the accountants who keep international companies’ books in order to the artists who comment on the human condition, is a stakeholder now. Together, we can rise to the present challenge and shape a future of which we can all be proud. And, whatever that future lacks in density of human accountants, it can surely make up with a surfeit of creatives.