Firms must tighten their scrutiny of candidates whilst also bolstering their IT skills development infrastructure, experts say.
Accountants’ ability to seamlessly transition between different IT systems is critical to promoting productivity and lowering upskilling costs within small and medium-sized accounting firms, according to specialist recruiter AJ Chambers.
Jason Reynolds, the firm’s operations director, argues that practices’ largest concern is not IT literacy in general, but rather competence with particular systems, such as Xero or Sage.
“The ability to go from using one system to a completely new one with minimal difficulty is invaluable and can save the firm time and resources, both at the point of hiring, but also in the future if they ever change systems.”
A particularly strong rationale for this, Reynolds notes, is the financial hardship of the pandemic for certain businesses.
Small and mid-market practices in particular are keen to minimise the upskilling costs associated with new hires, he says.
“There are transferrable skills, of course, but the firms would have to spend time and money training up the candidate on how to use the new software.
“In certain cases, they may not be in the position to do that and would rather save time by hiring someone already proficient in the firm’s chosen software.”
For Reynolds, this is where the versatility factor is key. Candidates are unlikely to be well-versed in using multiple systems, so the ability to adapt quickly is particularly valuable to firms, he explains.
To illustrate the point, Reynolds draws a parallel between IT literacy and standard literacy. No matter how literate a person may be, there will always be a word that they come across for the first time and don’t know what it means, he says.
“When gauging the IT literacy skills of a candidate, clients are more interested in how the person would handle this.”
“Versatility” must be defined
But according to Dermot Hamblin, managing director at business advisory firm Langdon Hamblin, accounting firms must establish a stronger grasp on what they are seeking in a candidate.
Though versatility with different systems is the overarching desire, this can be broken down into several key areas, he says.
“What’s most important is that the level of skill required as a minimum for the role is reviewed regularly as tool are updated regularly, and then the expectation is shared across the business.”
Hamblin identifies the importance of data analytics skills in particular, pointing to their increasing prevalence in professional services.
“Data analytics is seeping into the accounting profession and no longer the preserve of top-20 firms. I’ve seen a twelve-person business recruit a data analytics person within the last six months.”
Hamblin also cites skills such as segmenting databases for mailshot campaigns, the ability to operate Microsoft Office on a basic level, and an understanding of GDPR law as often critical competencies, positing that firms must be more scrupulous in checking for them.
However, he goes on to argue that, above all, accounting firms must scrutinise “tech savviness” among prospective talent. While this might appear vague, it can act as a reasonably reliable barometer as to how adaptable the candidate is to various tools and systems.
“This will gauge whether people in the business are comfortable with technology and are able to use it at ease.”
This is echoed by AJ Chambers’ Reynolds, who says that the majority of firms are seeking candidates with the ability to adopt new technologies with minimal friction.
“The main skills firms are looking for is the ability to keep up to date with newly emerging software that they may choose to adopt to help streamline the overall operation,” he says.
Culture of IT literacy must improve
But while concurring with Hamblin’s view that IT literacy varies depending on the systems and tools in question, Fay Bordbar, operations manager for accounting and outsourcing at Mazars, believes that there must be more standardisation.
For instance, she points out that the level of IT literacy within a firm will often vary depending on whether the individual is naturally comfortable with technology (such as ‘digital natives’) or not. But with the world of technology being in constant flux, this approach has an expiry date, she says.
“Some accountants may think they don’t need digital skills, leaving it to those who have grown up around technology or to junior staff in the team. But we are seeing a transformative shift with this over time.
“We must address the issue if accountants are to keep up with the ever-changing technology landscape in their industry.”
Bordbar goes on to add that with the continuing digitalisation of the economy and the accounting industry specifically, now is a critical time for firms to develop a more proactive and consistent approach to IT training.
“It is absolutely a necessity to keep up with digital advances. Clients are no longer willing to pay for manual data entry, and new digital firms are appearing without the issues faced as a result of legacy systems.
“Those who don’t have a willingness and openness to change will continue to fall behind.”