Beyond crunching the numbers and counting the beans
Patrick Zhu FCPA (Aust.) remembers his first job as an Executive Trainee at HSBC. The year was 1999, where most assignments were performed manually, and banking was almost exclusively an in-person experience.
He recalls the firm’s early e-banking services, where customers used modems and phonelines to connect to the internet and access accounts online. Browsing speeds were excruciatingly slow and connectivity was patchy, Zhu remembers.
Much has changed since then. New technologies such as optical fibre connectivity have emerged, and the online experience has been transformed from a laborious and time-consuming exercise to one of convenience, with quick internet speeds in most places around the world.
While internet banking has thrived over the past two decades, many other technologies have not. Such technologies, he says, simply became irrelevant to users — he reminisces about his two personal digital assistants, or PDAs, which became obsolete with the advent of the smartphone.
“Technology exists to make people’s lives better,” says Zhu. “Technology is first and foremost about people, and how it helps individuals perform tasks quicker and easier.”
By embracing new technology, he adds, people can concentrate on more creative and strategic tasks. In ignoring it, they risk being left behind.
Smart professionals and smart machines
Today, Zhu is Managing Director and Country Head of Global Liquidity and Cash Management at HSBC China. Based in Shanghai, he previously held roles in other Chinese cities including Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and worked overseas in Indonesia and the Philippines. Technology, he asserts, underpins the role of bankers and accountants, irrespective of where they are based.
Automation, in particular, is transforming their roles. Today, the managing of accounts receivable and accounts payable can be fully automated. Likewise, managing a company’s cash positions and liquidity between various entities can be conducted autonomously — all of which might be centralised through a shared service centre; executed in real time; and overseen on a mobile device.
No more spreadsheets to fill in. No more cheques to write. No more manual transfers between entities. Where might it all end, many ask.
Fortunately, there is still much need for accountants and bankers. “Their role has been elevated from executor to supervisor, strategist and management advisor,” says Zhu.
Use of disruptive ledger technology, otherwise known as blockchain, to facilitate cross-border payments is a noteworthy development of late. Zhu enthuses how HSBC performed the world’s first scalable live trade finance transaction using blockchain, alleviating the need for paper-based documents, and liaising between multiple parties from various countries and continents.
Companies are also leveraging artificial intelligence and big data to forecast financial opportunities and challenges before they arise. Monitoring and controlling these highly sophisticated new tools are financial professionals, not scientists, he explains.
Accountancy is a meeting between smart professionals and smart machines. Having knowledge of conventional practices, as well as the skills to manage new technologies, is a must for anyone entering the accounting profession today, Zhu says.
Impediments to change
Adjusting to new ways of working doesn’t come easy for some organisations. For many working in new industries, adopting novel business models and instilling practises that meet these new needs is very challenging, Zhu says.
Similarly, experienced professionals find it difficult to work with new technologies. It’s not that they are unable to understand or manage these, but rather that they are reluctant to adapt. “People are afraid of big changes,” Zhu observes. “They fear automation will make them redundant, when often it’s an opportunity for them.”
The solution, he explains, is for management to encourage workers to upskill and embrace new technology — and continuing professional development, or CPD, can help companies and individuals master new technologies through various curricula and industry events. In addition, company management must instil processes that carefully transition the company from one way of working to another. A robust change management plan is essential for these exercises to succeed.
Global best practices
Key to advancing the accounting industry is alignment among professionals, irrespective of where they reside. CPA Australia plays an important role in realising this, Zhu says. Not only does the association provide an internationally recognised designation, it offers a wide range of curricula that enable members to learn about present-day business issues, including disruptive technologies.
Zhu is particularly enthusiastic about networking opportunities: “Being able to connect with other members and learn from their personal experiences is critical to advancing our understanding of global trends, and overcoming common challenges.” Residing in China, he gets the opportunity to share insights with overseas members that ordinarily neither party would be able to access.
CPAs the world over agree that the role of an accountant is transitioning from mere financial practitioner to trusted, strategic counsellor. The days of simply crunching the numbers and counting the beans, per se, are by-and-large over for accountants.
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