The last five years has seen a radical rethink and shift in the way professional services companies have implemented digital technology, causing many to make large investments in both people and development.
The biggest paradigm shift in the industry is the move to cloud-based software, which has dramatically altered the financial services landscape. The advantages of cloud are multi-layered. Not only have functions such as traditional bookkeeping, invoicing, bank reconciliation, GST, payroll and more been revolutionised by the cloud, but the system’s accessibility affords both clients and accountants the ability to view and transact simultaneously, which leads not only to greater flexibility, but a vast increase in efficiency.
A client’s progress can be dynamically tracked, advice offered in a timely manner, and solutions to problems actioned with greater speed. Gone are the days when accounting information was not available until well past the end of the financial year, and only able to be acted on well after that. The cloud brings a greater opportunity for accountants and clients to work together than ever before.
Chief information officers, in particular, are being challenged to deliver tightly integrated cloud-based capabilities. Digital strategies must focus on ways of contributing to top-line growth, cost reduction and opportunities for differentiating within often highly contested markets.
Although many smaller accounting firms were swift to take up this technology, the larger accounting firms were at first slower to warm to the cloud. The risks were perceived to be high: would data safety be compromised and privacy abused? These remain the number one priorities for many business leaders; however, there is a balancing act to be achieved and we must learn to live in a connected, online world.
It was only with the arrival of Amazon and Azure into Australia that many business risk fears were allayed, as data can now be kept in Australia rather than offshore. Consequently, the major accounting firms have been gradually accepting the efficiencies that the cloud presents.
This new technology has also had a significant impact on internal IT teams. No longer having to rely on on-premises servers and support, applications are effectively outsourced, leading to a reduction in the requirement for both server administrators and application support specialists. This certainly means leaner, more streamlined organisations, but it also requires upskilling and redefinition of staff roles. Today’s technology champions the nimble and adaptable.
Life in the cloud also means that data is accessible on mobile devices such as phones and tablets. This accessibility isn’t limited to accounting systems alone, as access to documents and other practice management information is only the tap of a finger away, providing both mobility and real-time connectivity for running a professional services firm. The advantages are obvious, and again, take-up has increased with familiarity.
How have clients reacted to cloud computing? In our experience, this is largely generational, with the tech-savvy Millennials and Gen Y enthusiastically gravitating to the cloud, while many Baby Boomers view it with suspicion and question the need for change. This view has been combated by education programs that explain the advantages of the new technology. Showing how bank feeds give clients daily updates on the status of their cash reserves quickly gives them solid reasons to no longer spend the time and effort doings things the old-fashioned way.
The next chapter in this ever-changing landscape is the growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) to further automate transaction processing. The major banks are already utilising machine learning processes to assist with payments, money management and intelligent digital assistants for everyday customer queries. AI cannot yet capture the subtle nuances of the interpretation of, say, tax legislation, but there is a need to recognise that traditional bookkeeping and accounting tasks will become machine-based, so now is the time to start changing the skill set of your staff to be able to provide more value-added activities.
Fleur Telford, director of technology, KPMG Enterprise