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How Chartered Accountants can change the world

Iain Wright, Managing Director, Reputation & Influence at ICAEW discusses how Chartered Accountants can change the world.

October 2021

In the 1960s, Roy Amara, a computer scientist at Stanford University, told his colleagues that he believed that “we overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Bill Gates said something very similar, when he stated that “most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year and underestimate what they can achieve in ten years.”

Given the volatility and turbulence arising as a result of the pandemic, I would question the first part of those sentences. It has been a frightening and often tragic time for many. In the midst of it, however, science and innovation isolated the genome sequence which caused Covid, invented an antidote to tackle the virus and rolled out a vaccination programme for hundreds of millions of people. Perhaps more mundanely, but of importance, businesses pivoted and transformed against rapid change in a remarkably short space of time. Working from home, IT projects that should have taken years to roll out and finding new routes to market were all rolled out in the shortest possible time.

At the heart of this change were chartered accountants, providing guidance and advice to clients and within organisations to increase their resilience and ability to survive and thrive in an unclear and complicated world.

This trait is central to modern chartered accountants’ skills and attributes. The last 18 months were turbulent, but the next decade is where the second half of Amara’s and Gates’ comments really ring true. We live in a global economy and society which is transforming at a faster rate than at any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The urgent need to tackle climate change is now somewhere in the future but now – we have all seen the volatility in weather systems and the negative impact that it has on the environment, society and business. Technology is sweeping away long-established companies, sectors and business models, and rapidly altering all others, including the accountancy profession. We live in a society that is – positively – demanding greater fairness and opportunity and challenging long-held beliefs, but is becoming ever more divided, often unwilling to hear other opinions and disillusioned by an erosion of trust in institutions, including business and the profession.

Through this decade, chartered accountants can help shape this change. Indeed, we will help change the world. By the nature of our skills and attributes, we are problem solvers, able to navigate through complex scenarios for the benefit of business, the performance of the economy and improvements in society.

Chartered accountants must use these skills to herald a sustainable future. Our profession measures, assesses, reports and advises. These are essential in helping businesses transition to a net zero economy. This is not merely about numbers and financial statements, but how new accounting standards and practices will be adopted to engineer new ways of decision making within businesses. Of course we need inventors and engineers to assist in that journey, but chartered accountants are central to change and creating a sustainable future.

But it’s not just about climate change. Diversity and inclusion are important ways in which we can change the world. It shouldn’t just be about ensuring our profession looks like the society we hope to serve, important thought that is. It’s about encouraging people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences to become chartered accountants. If we are to be the profession of problem solvers for the 21st century, we need innovative ideas to tackle those issues. Those are not generated from a narrow segment of society with similar backgrounds. It’s by encouraging real cognitive diversity through embracing a wide variety of viewpoints. Chartered accountants have a strong record to tell on social mobility, but in the next decade we must go further in unleashing talent and opportunity, wherever it comes from.

Paradoxically, in changing the world, we can go back to our original intent – that of securing trust. Our profession was built on the need to give investors assurance regarding the finances of the companies springing up in the Industrial Revolution. Investors risked losing their shirts if they didn’t have an independent third party able to provide an impartial viewpoint. Those essential elements of trust – integrity, ethics, acting in the public interest – are needed more than ever in the modern world.

How chartered accountants can change the world is an important question as we as a professional body revises our strategy for the next decade. We want our members to have the tools and insights they need to be positive agents of change. Please watch the video we have produced at ICAEW and engage with your great London Society and the wider ICAEW to help make sure we can change the world for the better.

It’s time for chartered accountants to save the world

London Accountant

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