Advancements in robotic process automation, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are expected to displace tens of millions of people worldwide from their jobs over the next decade. Among the groups of workers that may worry about that are corporate tax professionals.
After all, tax is a highly technical discipline, seemingly a juicy target for increasingly smart machines that may usurp a large portion of the work tax managers currently perform.
However, the tax folks don’t necessarily need to worry — that is, if they adapt to change by developing skills they may not currently possess, according to a new report, “The Tax Professional of the Future,” from PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Historically, those who master the tax function well understand the tax code, regulations, and case law. They’re able to research source material and perform complex income-tax-provision and tax-return calculations.
But, PwC notes, as data analytics tools and other technologies progressively rid tax of technical tasks, the function will be freed to add value in other ways, and will be expected to do so. For one, tax professionals will need to gain a more nuanced understanding of the company’s business, and leverage that knowledge to take on leading roles in cross-functional technology-implementation and process-improvement projects.
“Since technologies rapidly evolve, it is the mindset — the willingness to work with new, innovative technology solutions — that must first change,” PwC writes.
Additionally, project-management, collaboration, and change-management skills will become important for tax managers, the report says. These capabilities will ensure that the tax function identifies expected outcomes and benefits while teaming with other functions and service providers.
In keeping with their expanded role, tax professionals will also be expected to interact effectively with the C-suite, deliver business cases for changes within tax, and impact business processes and functions beyond tax.
Indeed, while tax managers are commonly perceived as heads-down folks working in solitude in their offices, PwC says that the ability to build relationships will be crucial to their ability to influence decisions companywide.
The report quotes Alex Peng, a tax manager with Emerson Electric, as saying, “One of the most important skills in tax, and the most lacking, is the ability to explain tax issues to non-tax team members…. [And] listening is key, since it is important to understand issues fully in order to calibrate the appropriate actions. It’s not just about the tax agenda, it is about developing tax people to be organizationally cognizant.”
Regardless of the degree to which existing tax professionals can adapt in these ways, it will be up to academia to ensure a steady flow of qualified people into industry. “Colleges and universities that have not yet considered investments in technology learning as a required component of accounting and tax curricula could unintentionally place their graduates at a disadvantage,” the report states.
Academia should also ensure that students are challenged and developed in all areas of leadership, not just mastery of technical and theoretical skills, PwC says.
The report also criticizes university accounting programs for not exposing students to tax courses until late in their academic lives, and even then the instruction is “often from a very narrow perspective — individual taxation.”
An effective way to provide students with insights into tax is routine exposure to “visiting professors” from the profession “who can share real-life experiences and inspire the tax professional of the future,” PwC suggests.