We take too narrow a view of innovation. We imagine that it’s only for basement inventors and teenage coders, that it only happens in semi-mythical California garages or futuristic Googleplexes, that it’s something that other people do, in other industries.
The fact is that while some people and some industries may be more associated in our minds with innovation than others — the whiz kids in technology, the doctors pioneering new medical treatments, and so on — every industry is open to innovation, and anyone is capable of it.
By reputation, and possibly by temperament, accountants are traditionally seen as, well, traditional. It’s one of the few professions where having the word “creative” attached to your products is a bad thing, where SALY is a sought-after situation. The profession’s principal products — the audit, the financial statement and the tax return — remain much the same as when they were first introduced, and what changes have been seen in them were mostly driven by regulators and legislators outside the profession.
That should change; in fact, it already is changing, with larger firms in particular starting to prioritize innovation. KPMG is working with IBM’s Watson on cognitive computers; Deloitte just opened a blockchain laboratory; CohnReznick has an Innovation Lab in its New York headquarters (we profiled it in our last issue). They’re not waiting for outside players to create the new services and tools that will reshape accounting; they’re doing it themselves.
Now, it’s easy to say that those are large firms with large staffs and large budgets, but that’s taking the old, narrow view of what innovation is and who can do it. It is not about R&D budgets and skunkworks; it is not about expensive gadgets and science fiction inventions; it is not about geeks and hackers and researchers in laboratories.
Thomas Edison at work in his lab
Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons
It is, primarily, about looking at the world around you in a different way — and anyone can do that, no matter how small their practice is. Innovation is looking at your workflow and processes with fresh eyes so you can cut out steps or find faster, more efficient ways to accomplish the same thing. Innovation is listening to a client’s problems and coming up with solutions — and then formalizing those solutions to be able to offer them to other clients. Innovation is realizing that the skills you bring to an audit or a financial statement or a tax return can apply in a thousand seemingly unrelated areas, from contract compliance to financial planning to a whole host of other advisory services. Innovation is understanding that the business advice you hand out as an incidental part of all your engagements can actually be codified and turned into a nameable, sellable product.
The first step is to be open to the idea — to take the broader view that innovation is for everyone, including accountants, and to believe that you can create new business processes, new tools and approaches, and new, valuable services for your clients in your own office and at your own firm, even if they don’t look like a Silicon Valley garage or high-tech lab.
It doesn’t mean abandoning the traditional accountant’s virtues of being careful and reliable and thorough; in fact, it offers tremendous scope for their application. Just think how many areas of modern life would be revolutionized if they were done carefully, reliably and thoroughly!
The title of this column is “The Edison of accounting,” but right now there is no Edison of accounting, no figure associated with bringing major change to the profession. The last one was Fra Luca Pacioli, over 500 years ago, and that’s too long for a profession to be without a major innovator.
I say it’s high time someone became the 21st century’s Edison of accounting — and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be you.