In the media

4 August 2018

The Accountant – The winner takes it all Interview with CEO Olivier Boutellis-Taft by Jonathan Minter

Jonathan Minter: Can you give us an overview of the event, and the new technology survey?

Olivier Boutellis-Taft:This is the second year of the event ; last year was the first. We did the same survey that  I presented this morning from the technology barometer, which tested the technology-readiness of our members – or their future readiness, as I would say – and also to understand their intentions and concerns.

It is interesting to see how this has evolved, as I explained in the presentation . I am saying that awareness has been going up after an initial wave of worry, mostly because of a lot of negative press coverage -‘oh , you know, technology is going to change everything and its going to be terrible, you know, all these jobs disappearing and everything’.

You see people are not that worried in work, and that they see the positives of technology and how it is going to enable people to do more things, to automate the boring parts of the work and to actually be in a position to provide more added-value services to clients.

JM: It is interesting that in your poll, virtually no one viewed technology as an existential crisis

OBT: lnterestingly, it was a little bit more than last year. If I remember, this year we had 6%  of the people surveyed say this is an existential threat, while last year it was 0%.

I take 6% as good news, because it means people have understood technology and are ready to confront the question. If I ask you if this is an opportunity or a challenge, mentally are you going to be thinking ‘I can’t say it is a challenge -I have to say it is an opportunity’, especially if you went to business school? I take this as a sign of maturity, understanding and readiness to confront the challenge.

JM: The polls were anonymised. If names were next to the answers, what do you think would have happened?

OBT: I think everybody would say it is an opportunity. If I asked the room later on, then everybody would say ‘this is an opportunity; I am deadly frightened for my job but it is a wonderful opportunity’.

JM: If you go to a BMW conference, they will say what keeps them up at night is not what Mercedes-Benz is doing, but what someone like AirBnB is doing. Is that the case here?

OBT: That is something that we discussed last year, and it is a point I have made personally quite a number of times on such occasions. We are all very much concerned by internal competition or inter-professional competition, but the reality of the dimensions of competition today is probably two things. First, it is that the competition is coming from totally outside the sector: it is Spotify;it is AirBnB. They are totally foreign to the industry that we compete with -“Tesla is another good example. We forget that competition is more likely to come from two guys in a garage in Silicon Valley who know nothing about the sector but who have a brilliant understanding of the needs of the market and society, so we need to listen.

The second thing, which is really worrying and very rarely discussed, is that this new dimension of competition is very much a model of winners take all. So, if you can get all these markets I mentioned – Facebook and others – it has happened. We need to think of the consequences of not only entering into the marker structure, but also ethics.

JM : Do you have an answer for the premise of winner takes all?

OBT: No – a very simple answer!

JM: What do you think of the talk from this morning on cybersecurity, and expansion of the role of accountants so they are not just providing assurance for financials and sustainability?

OBT: We have been talking about that for a long time. First, the non-financial part of the accountant’s work is something that we are developing quite steadily, I would say. Now comes the cyber element -quite different are the parts that come with that. One thing is cybersecurity compliance and all that, but it has far more powerful tools. There is a great potential that technology is offering for not only cybersecurity but also financial security as well.  That is something we have been working on and discussing.

JM: One interesting remark Martin Sprengers from KPMG made was that, when it comes to systems and machines, you can build an extremely safe intranet, but when it comes to people like you and me, you cannot. How many people among your friends and family do you think are taking their own cybersecurity seriously? What are you doing with your email accounts? Are you taking that seriously, or are they a weak link in a cybersecurity structure?

OBT: That sounds like a massive thing from a pure providing-assurance-around­ cybersecurity point of view: will firms need to say ‘we can do all this, but the weak link is still you’? Yes, indeed we can’t, but something we need to do which was also mentioned – and I was pleased that it was mentioned this morning – is  education. One thing that is often forgotten everywhere is the massive investment that this profession has always traditionally made into education.

We are providing a lot of training to people. Because of the structure of the market – there is quite a turnover – this investment we make in training is almost, I would say, socially responsible investment, in the sense that people get all this education, ethical training, and are then employed all around the world of business, spreading good practices. I think that is one of the examples of the positive externalities of the profession.

TA: I imagine it is easier to get 21 -22-year-olds out of university, who were raised on iPads, to be very tech­-minded. Is there training for senior business leaders who have been doing things their way for the past 30 years and who have been very successful in their traditional approach ?

OBT: “There is a dual responsibility. One thing that the young generation have to understand is that, in a way,  they have to be responsible to the profession they joined, and they have to help it move on. Youngsters that are integrated into the profession have a responsibility to their generation and to the next generation, but also to the previous generation that they need to bring along with them.

For the more senior accountants – the guy you described, who has been very successful doing things a certain way for the past 50 years – they do have a pretty real responsibility to understand that the world has changed and that they have to be seen learning from the younger generation.

JM: You need to design a system where training goes upwards not just downwards?

OBT: Definitely. I think we have very traditional structures where we often still think of the world as a pyramid, but that is gone because technology does not work like that. This is a telephone model I would say -one point to one point, and it is top­-down. Today it is not even bottom-up, it is multidimensional; it is the internet world, it is multiple points co multiple points.


Article published by The Accountant


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