Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Digital Darwinism: it’s still adapt or die


Charles Darwin was right about survival depending on our ability to adapt. And never has this been more true than in the face of the digital revolution we are living through in the twenty-first century. While Darwin might have been speaking about adapting from generation to generation, today it feels like you need to adapt from month to month and day to day.  

Look at the taxi industry and Uber. Retail and Amazon. Publishing and Facebook. Hotels and Airbnb. 

Frighteningly, even these examples are dating. Amazon has already gone full circle and is expanding its bricks and mortar presence, armed with everything it has learnt about consumer behaviour in the digital world. Uber and its drivers are still figuring out their working relationship, but Dubai has announced it is launching driverless drone taxis this year. 

So where does that leave us, the accountants? We’re typically the conservative bastions of caution and risk-aversion in any company. Wielding the double-entry bookkeeping system for the last several centuries, we have, for the most part, kept businesses honest and solvent. But now even the double-entry system is being questioned in the world of blockchain and other decentralised, shared digital ledger systems.

The same thing applies to us, I’m afraid. Adapt or die. But bear in mind that adapting doesn't mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Adapting means understanding what needs to change in order to continue delivering value to your clients and your organisation. Look at Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, which, within one generation evolved larger and stronger beaks to find food during a prolonged drought. The birds adapted fast to their current reality, by optimising a function rather than replacing it all together. 

Likewise accountants need to look down the line and start shifting their position today — we are already seeing the impact of some of the changes brought about by digitalisation. Just like with the introduction of the internal combustion engine at the start of the previous century, there will be winners and losers. The “horseless cart” put an ecosystem built up around horse-drawn vehicles out of business, but enabled the growth of entirely new industries to support the automobile.  

The same is happening today. 

My advice? Step away from the spreadsheets, literally and figuratively. Step out of the shadows and reconnect with your colleagues at the coal face — they are the ones who know where the changes are coming from, can see the impact of these changes, especially the opportunities.  Open up the accounting process and empower your colleagues to collaborate with you. By doing so you’ll ensure that they have access to the numbers that impact their view of reality and in turn provide real input and value to your analysis of the numbers. This gives you an accurate picture, and creates buy-in and mutual benefit whether in the planning process or understanding the variances, when looking at actuals. You’ll stay connected and relevant, and by decentralising some of the accounting functions, you’ll free up your own time to be more strategic and adaptable. 

With the world changing so fast, the old rules no longer work but the new rules haven’t yet been developed!  This makes finance’s custodial role more difficult but even more important than ever before. Stay adaptable and you’ll be able to guide your clients and organisation ethically and prosperously through these opaque days; don’t and you will be one of Darwin’s casualties.

As published in Accountingweb – 27th July 2017


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