One of my ambitions for this year is to ensure that we remain – and are seen as - leaders, not followers, in this increasingly digital world.
An abiding memory of my interview at A C Mole & Sons on 13 June 1980 (and yes, it was indeed a Friday) is of being shown the firm’s new computer. It was huge and linked to eight dumb terminals. It cost a fortune and its functionality, while it was cutting-edge then, would appear faintly amusing now. Looking back, what really strikes me is how much foresight the then-partners showed: they saw that technology was the future and backed their judgement by investing in it. They didn’t wait to see what happened, they made the leap of faith.
In the 38 years since that day, I cannot recall a time when the scale, pace and impact of change in digital technology on all aspects of our lives, including our professional lives as accountants, has been as great as it is currently. It’s impacting on businesses from multinationals to SMEs to micros. It’s changing the way we audit and the way businesses operate; it’s also changing the way we interact with our clients. It is the impact of technology on the way we advise SMEs and micros I’d like to reflect on here.
You might expect me to do this in the context of Making Tax Digital (MTD), but while MTD is undoubtedly one driver of change, it is far from the only one. If you have been to Accountex, you will understand: within seconds of walking through the door you are faced with an aircraft hangar-sized room, full of software and app vendors. The supply and demand in the marketplace is driving digitalisation just as much, if not far more than, MTD and that is the way it should be. The range of software and apps combined with the processing speed and power of modern hardware offers even the smallest practice the opportunity to transform the service offered to clients.
Take a sole trader with handwritten records. The best we can often do is provide a reactive service based on old information. But if we can persuade the client to use an app that captures images of purchase invoices in real time, paired with software that draws data from the business bank account, then the service offering can be very different. If the technology is cloud-based, we can view data and give advice closer to real time, perhaps prompting the client to raise invoices to head off a cash flow pinch. It would be impossible to deliver that kind of “virtual FD” service for such a small business without digital technology. I’m not saying that this transition is easy, simply that the technology makes it possible and that many members are already offering such a service to their clients. For others however, this is a major step yet to be taken.
If you haven’t yet taken the plunge into this digital world, I would recommend attending one of the ICAEW Practice Committee’s "Tomorrow's Digital Practice" workshops. These are being held in Manchester (25 September), London (5 October), Birmingham (11 October) and Bristol (18 October). You will hear from fellow practitioners who have themselves made the transition to digital. They will share their practical experience, not just theory.
And if you want to hear the latest on MTD, can I recommend the Tax Faculty’s webinar on 11 September and the Tax Faculty Conference at Chartered Accountants' Hall on 28 September.
As a profession, we have always been leaders. In this digital age, it is vital that we remain so.