Pic: Mikhail Nilov, Pexels
Digital transformation in many organisations has accelerated this year. The need for accountants with data analytics skills has never been higher.
The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) recent Future of Jobs Report 2020 explores how automation, in tandem with the COVID-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario. The report forecasts a significant shift in tasks, jobs and skills within the next five years, with accounting and auditing being in the top four areas impacted, and data analytics and data science being the biggest area of growth.
This trend is echoed in recent figures from accounting and finance recruitment firm Robert Half, which show one in three employers are redesigning roles in direct response to the pandemic, with the focus on digital, technical and soft skills.
With the WEF’s view of significant change over such a short timeframe, never has the need to upskill been more urgent. For finance and accounting teams, this means a greater focus on business planning and analysis. This comes hand-in-hand with a digital ‘levelling up’ of businesses, with two in five leaders committing to fast-tracking digital transformation in the second half of the year, according to Robert Half. An EY survey came to similar conclusions: 57% of respondents said predictive and prescriptive analytics skills were critical.
Historically, data analytics was the domain of other departments, such as marketing and IT, says Fraser Nicol, Partner, Business Technology Consulting for top 10 accounting and business advisory firm Azets. With the digital transformation agenda accelerating, the data available to support decision making is growing.
“Finance functions first need to be able to use data in its own right to support good financial decision-making,” Nicol says. “Secondly, they need to be able to support the business case that’s being made by other bits of the business that want to use data analytics. That's why it's becoming more important now.”
However, the skills currently aren’t there to meet demand. According to consultancy firm McKinsey, only 18% of companies believe they have the skills necessary to gather and use insights effectively. Just 19% of companies are confident their data insights processes are improving the effectiveness of their sales.
Nicol says there’s often a lack of knowledge around data and its potential. “Businesses have got more data available to them now than they had before. And most businesses don't know exactly what that data is or what it could enable them to do.”
Data analytics managers within the finance function can help businesses utilise and use that data, which requires certain skills. “You have to be able to respond to the evidence critically and make your own decisions. Insight only comes from understanding your business and the significance of whatever the data is telling you,” says Nicol. “You have to link your data analytics very closely to your strategy and your business objectives, rather than allow it to drive them. That's why it's almost too important to be left to the data scientists.”
Accountants as ‘data translators’
McKinsey talks about the importance of data translators: people able to take data sets, draw insights from that data and put those insights into actionable language that can then be applied across the organisation. “When the data are rendered into insights, business managers need to then translate them into messages and offers to be delivered to the marketplace.”
This isn’t necessarily a new role to accountants, Nicol explains. Finance professionals have always been responsible for taking financial information and presenting it to others within the business. The difference is in the depth and range of data now available from non-traditional sources, possibly in areas of which accountants are unaware. “There's a challenge there to get that right. But there's also a massive opportunity to actually add a lot more value than you were previously adding because you can access much richer streams of data.”
What you can do about it
If you want to move yourself or your team into more of a data analytics role, there are several key skills you need to develop and consider, including technical (programming, statistics, business knowledge) and non-technical (problem-solving, communication, critical thinking). The collection and analysis of richer data also brings new ethical considerations for accountants to keep in mind. “It's not just about how you can quickly extract data, manipulate it and create outputs with it; you have to be able to think about the ethical side of it as well,” says Nicol.
ICAEW, in partnership with training provider Kaplan and Azets, has created a Data Analytics Certificate Programme for members who want to improve their data analytics capabilities. The Analyst course teaches people the principles of data analytics as a process, including how to code and how to manipulate data, and the importance of creating engaging narrative and data visualisations back to the business to aid decision-making. It also covers the ethics of data analytics. The Management course is for those who are seeking to understand how to develop an effective data analytics function within their organisation and covers areas including data strategy and governance, forecasting and risk management, and influencing through storytelling and visualisation.
Experts are predicting that digitisation will bring automation to traditional accountancy roles, Nicol explains. However, the need for finance professionals who can interpret data and can enable decision making based on their data-driven insights is only going to grow. “The world is changing, business is changing, accountants need to change too.”
The ICAEW Data Analytics Certificate Programme will be available from 1 December 2020.
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