Mark Mayberry has had an extensive career in public accounting. Starting work in a firm as a financial auditor, Mark has always looked for ways to work smarter and not harder. Throughout his career, he started advancing through projects at the office level and then the national level and ended up doing some global projects for a leading firm, focusing on assurance technologies and data analytics. With 23 years at BDO and 40 years in public accounting under his belt, Mark specialises in enabling teams to leverage technologies to streamline processes and increase value.
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Their in-depth conversation covered some of the biggest topics in accounting today – the adoption of data analytics in accounting firms, the challenges firms often experience, and the role of data acquisition.
Challenging the status quo
Mark helps firms rethink their old processes and helps them create new opportunities to leverage technologies and data to gain valuable business insights. Overcoming roadblocks to data acquisition, ingestion and standardisation, he challenges accountants to use their critical thinking skills once routine areas are streamlined.
“What I find is that firms think they have consistent processes, but actually they don’t, and this could vary between partner to partner or even from office to office in a multi office environment. So, while there may be standards that firms think they’re following, the reality is that teams are doing their own things in their own way.”
Mark suggests that it’s a good exercise for firms to have a meeting of the minds and ask themselves – is this really the right process or the right procedure to do at this particular point in time and challenge themselves to find a better solution to the one they currently have documented.
So how do firms change their mindset and put this into practice?
Building from the middle
Tools and solutions available to audit staff should be enjoyable to use, generate excitement, and empower both professional decision-making and career progression e.g., by allowing staff to move beyond mundane mechanical work and into critical audit thinking earlier in their careers.
Mark discusses the concept of ‘building from the middle’. This essentially means that change leadership will come from new, younger partners who want a new way to do audits and are thinking in terms of being in the audit profession for the next 30+ years.
“Find volunteers that are excited about looking for change, that could be at an experienced manager level, or even at the senior level. I’d like to get them excited about that, and start on some smaller projects, because those are the ones that are closer to the work. Once that excitement builds in that middle, it spreads organically throughout the rest of the organisation.”
Mark believes that targeting individuals in the middle layer – those with enough experience to understand the work, coupled with enthusiasm – are the ones that will really drive change and in essence become future of the firm. As such, in 5 to 10 years, as things really take off, these same individuals in the middle will be the people in the executive offices.
He also goes on to explain that this concept will improve hiring and retention of key staff when audit work is in a more modern setting.
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Where do firms begin from a technology standpoint?
As firms go through this period of change leadership, Mark discusses what he is currently seeing with firms (and in the profession generally) with regard to the adoption of technology.
Mark insinuates that there is much discussion in the profession around data analytics and that many firms are exploring ways to use it. Some firms are embracing the use of data and technologies and some are waiting for standards to catch up, which he does not recommend. Then there are those firms striving to choose the “right” tool but many just end up dabbling in data on small pilots for a few engagements.
He added that data acquisition, although easier in last few years, is the biggest impediment to faster and deeper technology adoption by firms.
“Data acquisition is still a struggle for many firms. There is still this resistance to change, most notably around the time and investment needed, fear of being challenged by regulators on newer techniques and meeting assurance standards. There is also a lack of understanding about how significant the potential value that can be gained and fear of failure for trying new things.”
Many teams do not know what data they need – or how to ask for it – and might be spending hours or days preparing the data for analysis on that one engagement before they get to the analysis phase. So, when accountants are thinking about data acquisition – it’s important to take a holistic approach to all of their client base, rather than just simply getting access to data on an individual client by client basis. Mark believes that firms strive for data standardisation to enable repeatable, cross client analytics from multiple financial systems.
Truly understand what the client’s challenges are at the moment.
Mark discusses his own experience whereby one of the questions he would ask when going to interview people in the accounting department or the finance department was “what are you struggling with?”. Typical responses to that were they couldn’t get the finance group to talk to the operational group for certain kinds of reports, for whatever reason.
“In this situation I thought, maybe as part of the audit, we can start exploring further and getting some different reports from the operational group. We were actually able to start getting the finance department access to more information than they had before, because we asked for it as auditors first.”
Mark explains that it’s just a conversation that you have in your day-to-day understanding of the client’s business and what their pain points are, and that’s what adds a little bit of intrinsic value.
He also articulated that leaders in small and medium firms should think about how they can keep ahead of their competition by streamlining their service offerings that provide the most value to clients beyond just the compliance work. By learning about and exploring enabling technologies that automate the routine, firms can concentrate on the unusual.
The future of the profession
Mark believes that the profession is going to change dramatically in the next 5 to 10 years and move away from compliance to more of an advisory role. As parts of the audit become more automated, the only way to get value for your firm is to think about how you can move more into an advisory practice, rather than compliance.
“I think these are exciting times as there is rapid change happening all around us. I think that the compliance work will end up being concentrated in firms that adapt and standardise as much as possible. While profitable, the real future is for those that leverage technologies and data to provide business insights from uncovering unique solutions.”
Advice for firms moving into the future
Many firms are in the early stages of a strategy for implementing new technologies. For those who are new to it, Mark has one piece of valuable advice for those managing partners and individuals tasked with moving their firms into the future.
“Get some volunteers to help you do something, they are in your firms already. Give them leeway to try new things and let them fail. Organise small workshops to identify your pain points and generate new ideas then prioritise and find quick wins to build momentum.”
He urges that firms should not wait for the perfect solution or the technology and get going with their development because leading firms are quickly outpacing stragglers for competitive advantage.
Watch the full video interview to take a deep dive into the conversation and get an insight into the thoughts of one of the leading names in accounting. If you think the time is right to implement a market-leading technology on your next audit or interested in seeing how Inflo could transform the way your firm works, get started for free today.
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