Workforce Management

How to Future-Proof the Tax Professional Role

Technical competencies are just table stakes for tax professionals as change sweeps across corporate tax departments.
Kelli KnobleMarch 4, 2019

The tax profession is experiencing a profound impact from multiple regulatory changes, innovative service models, and disruptive technologies. Through successive waves of change, the model of a new and different kind of tax professional is emerging.

It’s clear that technical tax competencies will continue to be necessary qualifications, but not by themselves sufficient ones, for a future in which tax professionals will find themselves prescribing high-tech solutions, anticipating regulatory updates, and going far beyond mere tax compliance.

To undertake the necessary change, corporate tax departments and professional services firms alike must start to define ­— and hire for —the future. Training, career paths, and compensation models all must be revamped to build a tax practice prepared for a future with uncertain technology and regulatory dynamics.

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Firms like Grant Thornton have recognized the importance of meeting these demands. We have implemented diverse-skills hiring models and transformed our learning program to center on the digital experience. By that we mean digital fluency of our tax professionals, from new hires to partners, with digital tools and practices playing an integral part of our work.

This kind of change is neither cheap nor easy, especially for the in-house tax director at a company, or for tax professionals in smaller firms. So, with limited time and resources where should professionals focus their energies? Here are five areas that will make a big difference:

Automation: While no one expects CPAs to transform themselves into computer coders, today’s professionals do need an understanding of various automation solutions and how to tailor them to address client needs. Heavily manual processes, which are typically error-prone, will often yield a worthwhile ROI when you streamline them through automation.

Today’s professionals must be able to recognize these processes within the tax function and articulate an appropriate solution among many available options in the market.

Data management: Properly caring for and understanding tax data is increasingly crucial. Business leaders are looking to their accounting professionals and service providers to carefully manage this data.

Quality assurance, maintenance, control and access present significant challenges, especially as companies seek to do more with their data. Tax professionals need to be able to advise their constituents on the best way to meet their modern data needs.

Data visualization and analysis: Data management proficiency brings the potential to develop insights and influence business decisions. Tax data touches every aspect of an organization’s operations, from sales to capital expenditures to employee compensation.

The opportunity here is to use this data to do more than simply improve a company’s tax position; a data-savvy tax professional should know how to use data tools to influence strategic decision making.

Familiarity with blockchain and cryptocurrencies: These technologies are still so new that the precise role they will play is to some extent an open question.

Still, tax professionals should understand how they function to advise decision makers today. Even a basic literacy in blockchain and cryptocurrencies makes you invaluable in helping to uncover business needs that these solutions could help solve.

People-facing skills. Tech-savvy skills will be of little value to practitioners who lack the communication skills to explain how they make a difference, or who can’t cultivate the trust necessary to deploy them. Tax professionals today must communicate technical knowledge and build relationships so they can demonstrate the benefits and value of new technologies and solutions.

The above list may seem daunting, but it is increasingly clear that every tax professional will need these skills to excel in our profession. We see leading professional services firms committing to increasing levels of digital access and training for their teams. And in many cases, even that may not be adequate for the demands of the near future.

At Grant Thornton, we transformed our learning program in 2018. The foundation is a pair of digital certification programs targeted at all of our tax professionals, depending on their job level and the role they play in the go-to-market plan.

Not only tax-services providers, but also corporate tax departments and CFOs, should be learning what steps they need to be taking, now, to prepare their workforce for the challenges and solutions of the future.

Kelli Knoble is a partner and national tax leader at Grant Thornton, LLP.