While management accountants don’t need to be technical experts, they must be able to look into the crystal ball and evaluate current and emerging technical trends that affect their organizations. As IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) President and CEO Jeff Thomson notes, “It is a transformative time in our profession.
Robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, and data analytics are not passing trends. Every business professional must pivot towards technology.” With this knowledge, they must step up and provide accounting technical leadership in their organizations. Navigating the new order of technology and accounting requires a fresh strategic approach for management accountants to meet this critical organizational leadership need.
In many companies, the accounting and IT departments operate as siloed organizations. It’s typical for management accountants to perform their accounting duties while the IT department is responsible for maintaining accounting software and hardware to facilitate and support those activities. Communication between the two groups may be limited. Accountants may dismiss involvement with technology issues because they don’t understand them and take an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. This could result in serious consequences: Ignorance is not bliss.
TAKE THE LEAD, FIND A WINGMAN
The risk is that management accountants will end up uninformed about decisions being made for the organization. Don’t fall into this trap. Understanding technology and managing and monitoring it are different from inventing technology. Management accountants can lead technology implementations by serving as project managers and participating on cross-functional accounting/IT teams. The more you participate in technology activities and projects, the more you learn that will benefit future projects. It’s a two-way street: The IT group learns about accounting and finance, and the accounting and finance group learns about IT. This benefits the company with better information and insight.
Technical leadership is a daunting prospect for management accountants who have spent their careers focused primarily on accounting and not on technology. As the use of IT tools and automation grows, failure to leverage technology will handicap organizations’ process efficiency and data analytics capability. Ideally, management accountants should retool their skills to master technology, but that may not be possible in the short run.
Consider finding a technical wingman to support your efforts. The classic 1980s movie Top Gun popularized the term “wingman,” the aviator charged with keeping the lead pilot safe during a mission. The lead pilots for an organization’s accounting and finance function are CFOs, controllers, and management accountants. As you develop technical skills, create a team that complements your skills, and surround yourself with wingmen and wingwomen who can help educate you about technology, assess the impact of technology on your operation, help you make informed decisions, and support your technical leadership.
TRAINING, TRAINING, TRAINING
The popular real estate quote “location, location, location” means that, all other factors being equal, a better property location will probably command a higher price. For digital leadership, it’s training, training, training. Partner with vendors and local universities to provide in-house training to develop your accounting staff. IMA recently launched a Technology & Analytics Center to provide members with educational resources such as webinars, online courses, articles, and research papers focused on key technology and data analytic trends affecting the accounting and finance profession (bit.ly/2Izy3Ni).
You must provide technical leadership in your organization, and the first step, according to Chris Mishler, former chair of IMA’s Technology Solutions and Practices Committee, is to “grow your confidence to lead by growing your knowledge base. You want to lead in our field of finance and accounting? Lead yourself then, to your nearest source of new technical skills.”
Recognize the magnitude of technology challenges and risks for your organization. Create the position of chief accounting technology officer to work side by side with the chief information officer to represent the technology interests of the CFO and the controller in your organization. This individual should have a strong understanding of accounting and finance, cybersecurity, data analytics, robotic process automation, and AI applications for accounting functions. A key strategic role for this function is to develop a digital accounting team that is fluent in technology tools and strategies that can help organizations face the challenges of accounting technology. This approach will lead to innovation, efficiency, and competitive advantage.
LEADING YOURSELF, THEN THE ORGANIZATION
Mishler states that the increasing focus on technical solutions to analytical questions means someone has to be in the position to provide options, answers, and leadership. His advice: “Don’t be left behind by sticking to just debits and credits, but stretch across domains and at least learn the language to talk intelligibly with those who hold the keys to either data or the analytical tools.” Management accountants are increasingly becoming strategic partners in their organizations. Larry R. White, who was IMA Chair for 2004–2005, once said that as management accountants evolve toward becoming business partners, management accountants must master competencies such as data and models, technology, and leadership in order to contribute to their organization’s success and competitive advantage. Start today by leading yourself to technical competency, and then lead your organization.
The opinions included are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, or any other federal agency.
IMA LEADERSHIP ACADEMY
The IMA® Leadership Academy provides leadership opportunities for all members. From leadership assessment to leadership courses offered in person as well as through WebEx to participation opportunities in mentoring, be it reverse or traditional, the IMA Leadership Academy can help you meet your leadership goals and improve your leadership skills. For more information, please visit the Leadership Academy website at www.imanet.org/career-resources/leadership-academy.