As a comparative newcomer to the accountancy scene, many of the early developments in the local industry were already historical by the time I started my career as a graduate around 25 years ago. However, having followed my father into the profession, I did experience some of those earlier developments vicariously during my formative years. The afterglow of that period was also still very much in evidence when I joined KPMG as a trainee.
For us junior members of staff, the majority of our work was still handwritten, figures were cast by calculator and we only occasionally had access to such technological marvels as laptops and spreadsheets. Faxes and formal letters remained the primary means of written communication and although email was not long around the corner, it was a very different animal to what it has become today – I can recall our IT manager ‘dialling up’ the internet just a couple of times each day to retrieve and send the latest batch of messages.
So it is not hard for me to imagine accountants in those early years enjoying a more civilised pace of work, with exchange of formal correspondence measured in days rather than minutes or seconds, time set aside for important yet leisurely business lunches or the occasional afternoon negotiating on the golf course and wholly principles-based accounting rather than the complex and arcane rules that often prevail today.
The Jersey Association of Practising Accountants, established in 1954 and a precursor to the present Jersey Society of Chartered and Certified Accountants (JSCCA), existed at a time when there were still relatively few audit firms in the Island. I am told anecdotally that the principal business of the Association was to hold an informal quarterly lunch between representatives from those firms, to discuss business like staff housing matters and agree not to poach each other’s staff.
Since it was established in 1974, however, the remit of the JSCCA is much more comprehensive. Its present membership includes representatives of all the major accountancy networks which are present in the Island, along with many other smaller boutique firms, members working in a wide variety of roles across industry, together with those that have progressed to become business leaders in the Island.
It follows that in promoting such an extensive range of interests, the JSCCA is kept very busy as it aims to strike a balance which works for its membership as a whole.
However not everything has changed; the JSCCA’s constitution remains largely untouched and the core objectives of the society which were agreed during its first AGM continue to be as relevant today as they have always been:
- to promote the study of accountancy: we have recently established a student society, which will provide the next generation of accountants with opportunities to network and further their professional development;
- to encourage cooperation between members and participate in matters concerning the accountancy profession: the society represents a broad range of interests and promotes views from across its membership;
- to provide a forum for discussing matters of mutual interest and for the expression of professional opinion on matters of public interest: as well as updating members on developments on and off the Island, we actively contribute to industry consultations, for example helping to shape developments in law and regulation as far as they concern accounting matters;
- to communicate with other authorities in the Island and other professional bodies: by participating in industry forums and advising bodies such as Government, the JFSC and Jersey Finance, the JSCCA actively works to enhance Jersey’s offering. We maintain strong links with other related organisations such as the GSCCA in Guernsey and the UK’s professional bodies (ICAEW, ICAS and ACCA) to ensure that we are aligned on key areas of interest; and
- to promote high standards of professional conduct: this is critical to maintaining confidence in the industry and to ensuring that public interest is taken into consideration in the work that accountants do.
My own experience reveals how members of the JSCCA work tirelessly to support the Island’s competitive advantage and protect its reputation in providing services of the highest quality. Fittingly for a leading international finance centre, Jersey successfully attracts the best of talent from overseas (my own firm counts around 36 different nationalities); the Island is, after all, a genuinely attractive place for accountants to live and do business in. They not only work in practice but fill senior roles across the financial services industry and it goes without saying that with such great breadth and depth of expertise in the Island, there will inevitably be a wide choice of accountants and specialist service providers to work with, whether you are looking for support in tax, auditing or accounting.
That has been a brief journey through the past and the present – now, what to the future of accountancy? One so-called mega trend that will surely shape things to come is digital transformation.
As an industry, we have long been used to experimenting with and implementing new technologies and I expect this will continue to accelerate. The pandemic has sped up the process of change.
Uncertainty has encouraged innovation and thinking outside the box and in making such a rapid shift to entirely digital ways of working, the whole industry has demonstrated its flexibility and adaptability to continue to effectively do business, whilst staff were forced to work from home. I began this article by describing some of the technology that shaped the early days of my career; that relatively recent past is already unrecognisable to those just starting out.
Now, the cloud means that I can access my audit files, communicate and collaborate effectively from anywhere with an internet connection. Helpfully, my staff can be working from any location; it is much easier to pull cross-border teams together virtually and draw on highly specialised skills that are available in the Island or elsewhere, to service the international and increasingly complex clients based in the Island. It does not take a huge leap of the imagination to realise how collaboration and meetings might take place using augmented reality to project virtual team members into real-life settings.
Another way in which the future of technology is being felt right now is big data. Accountants already crunch large volumes of data to perform higher quality and more efficient work. What is changing and will be enhanced further in the course of time is the use of artificial intelligence, which allows systems to learn to interrogate on their own, to perform advanced analytics which enables more insight to be gained from huge data sets. This technology will allow accountants to play an even more active role in the running of businesses. It will, for example, mean outliers such as fraudulent transactions are actively identified in real time, rather than via a point-in-time check using stale data.
Finally, blockchain is one more recently emerged technology which has the potential to transform the profession. Widely recognised as the platform used by Bitcoin, blockchain is a cryptographically secure way of recording the transfer of ownership of assets and maintaining a ledger of accurate financial information. For accountants, reducing the costs and time spent maintaining and reconciling ledgers would dramatically improve efficiency. This will free up resources to concentrate on more value-adding tasks, rather than recordkeeping.
Whatever the future may bring, my view is that machines, no matter how well they are programmed, cannot replace people. The robots will continue to rise but technology will support, not replace, accountants. Just as my predecessors would remind us, it is the value of relationships, professional judgement and the trust built with clients and stakeholders that really matters. The profession will continue to adapt and stay relevant. I can state with confidence that the local accountancy industry is in good shape to respond to whatever changes and challenges may arise, whilst the JSCCA’s objectives – in fulfilling its role of supporting the local industry – will continue to stand it in good stead for years to come.