Well, I hate to say it, but you’ve not only missed the bus, but you’re missing the taxi-on-demand-service and are imminently going to miss the self-driving vehicle. Take Uber — the poster child for the disruption of traditional business, shaking up the centuries-old taxi industry. But, while Uber sorts out its internal culture issues, and figures out its relationship with its drivers, it is already getting a taste of its own medicine. Dubai is about to disrupt the disruptor with the announcement that it is launching driverless drone taxis this year.
So I think we can all agree that change is coming, it is coming fast and it is exponential. I could say: “like nothing we have seen before” but we have, consistently over the last generation. It is just getting faster!
However, operating in this amount of change and uncertainty is par for the course in Africa. And the consequence of our exposure to unrelenting and erratic change is a deep-seated entrepreneurial optimism, which I think is going to stand us in good stead. I’m writing this in the week that my country, South Africa, saw its president survive an eighth vote of no confidence in parliament. This is a reasonable reflection of the lack of confidence the country as a whole is suffering from, compounded by musical chairs in our finance minister’s office; a yo-yo-ing petrol price; and an official 6.6% inflation rate (which many would argue is far from realistic) and constant revelations of mismanagement, corruption and graft. Change is quite literally our constant.
We’ve become extraordinarily resilient and adaptable. Comfortable with not only riding out tectonic shifts, but also turning them into opportunities. With the uncertainty created by Brexit and Trump, the western world is learning the hard way how to challenge existing thought processes and adapt to an environment of continual change and uncertainty. It is not all bad and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a more versatile and adaptable management team, with a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit thrown in.
If your normal is change, then you should be well-prepared for making the most of digital disruption by looking for the gaps and the opportunities it presents. Because there are going to be opportunities. Take the arrival of the car at the start of the last century. For sure, businesses died as fewer horses were used: the grain industry faced ruin; and stables, farriers, trainers and other support services that had built up around horse-drawn vehicles saw a massive decline.
But other businesses emerged. Cars needed to be built and these cars needed tyres, fuel stations, etc. Proper roads had to be designed and built, as did road signs, pedestrian crossings and other infrastructure we take for granted.
How is this playing out in our finance world? Consider the automation of accountancy functions. Robots are simply better at doing tasks that are repetitive and rule-based. They are faster and more accurate than we are, and don't get bored or distracted. They are taking over some of the more repetitive functions in our firms, and at our clients, as accountancy software becomes more accessible.
So, as accountants, do we go the same way as the farriers and grain suppliers? Or are we agile enough to adapt to this new normal and look for the opportunities? For instance, with the flood of repetitive work taken care of, can we hone our critical thinking and problem-solving skills on behalf of our clients? Can we use our time analysing and assessing the real-time data we now have at our finger tips to give strategic input to our clients and support their planning and decision-making process? Can we develop our inter-personal skills now that we can leave the back office and interact with the rest of the firm as well as our clients? And can we review a few holy cows, for instance, what impact will blockchain technology have for us and our clients?
We have the opportunity to lead, not follow, the digital disruption. But we need to learn to be adaptive and hone those skills that were not perhaps at the top of the list: interpersonal skills, analysis, and a healthy and open minded view of what the future holds for us and our clients. We can lead or we can follow, but in tomorrow’s world there is little value to be added by being a follower.
Kevin Phillips, columnist Accountancy South Africa and Tech Leader