Martin de Bie is an innovation advisor at 216, an organisation where data-driven systems form the basis for in-depth financial advice for SMEs. As chair of the digital working group at the EFAA and digitisation expert of the Accountancy Europe SME team, Martin is active in the accounttech movement.
We sat down with Martin to discuss his digital transformation journey and the changing role of accountants ahead of Fast Forward Studio. Make sure you register here to find out more.
You've been active in the profession for a while. How have you seen accounting change over the last few years?
For many years we’ve read the same line: “The business of accountants will change or even end as a result of emerging technology”. But in 2020 we are still here and still using the same business models and providing the same commodity services to our clients despite the changing landscape. Yes, we made the essential move towards cloud solutions as every industry has. Our accounting processes are more and more automated, integrated and our output went from paper to digital. But is this really innovation? Are these changes enough to help our industry to remain in business?
Most accountants think their clients will always require their services and the expected and feared game-changer will not arrive soon.
If we look at the automotive industry we can see a similar pattern. Self-driving cars were not a realistic threat to car manufacturers. Every traditional car brand thought this was a ridiculous idea that would not come to fruition any day soon. But in 2016, only a few years later, a company called TESLA proved by using AI technology, adding significant computer power and data, an electric car can drive autonomously. And now in 2020 TESLA self-driving cars are more successful than ever and other brands are now using this as the blueprint to begin manufacturing their own. So it’s clear that in just four years a whole industry can be transformed with technology.
What is the role of technology today and how do you see it evolving in the near future?
Technology is very important - it’s an enabler for change. But without a good digital strategy in your firm, technology has no value. I see a lot of suppliers delivering interesting cloud solutions with a focus on improving internal processes and enabling more efficiency on compliance work. The advantage of cloud solutions is the opportunity to connect these solutions from different suppliers with APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). Data is the new oil for our industry. As a firm you can apply your data in various ways. Combine this information and you have a 360 view of your clients. Data-driven (automated) is possible when you use the right digital strategy.
What challenges does this present for accounting firms? Customers still trust their accountants with their sensitive data. Our profession is still essential for various services like tax and reporting. How can we collect more data from our clients and systems to develop a 360 view of all our clients? Not every accounting firm can set up an in-house data warehouse and not every software supplier will provide all the API information in their system for re-use. So we are not in control of all the data within our firm but our suppliers are. For example VISMA in the Netherlands. They have bought a lot of different solutions used in accountancy, some of them are market leaders in their scope of business. Can VISMA control the use and availability of our client’s data and re-use it for their own strategy or solutions?
Do you think advisory services are now playing a more important role? Do you think the needs of the customer, the companies, have changed?
Interaction on a regular basis with your client is very important. Now more than ever with COVID-19 as we are seeing it have a big negative influence on the working capital of SMEs. Are we able to support them and in time to make a difference? Do we have actual financial insight on SMEs to be proactive in advisory services and to protect them from the threat of insolvency? Probably not.
Fintech is moving into this space more and more with solutions that focus better on customer experience and needs of clients. The annual report is still sometimes necessary for tax purposes or required by certain stakeholders but the added-value for the client of commodity services is low.
Yes, we need to be more in a pro-active role in advising our clients at the right moment using data-driven systems. But in order to do this, we need to change our internal organisation and rethink our work processes. To stay as our clients’ trusted advisor we need to be open to talking technology to suppliers about how we can re-use clients’ data and make this, and the value it brings, transparent to our clients.
At Fast Forward Studio, you’ll have a session with other leading accountants, sharing their digital transformation stories. Could you tell us briefly what the viewers here can expect from you?
I’ll be speaking about 216’s journey starting in 2015 when an IT company took over a traditional accounting firm for SMEs. The challenges we faced, and the challenges we’re still facing, on our journey to become a data-driven organisation. These perspectives will give the audience insight into our approach, they can use this knowledge for their own digital transformation journey. 216 cannot change our profession to ensure it maintains its status as a client’s most valued partner in this connected world alone but together we can.
Which individuals, accountants or companies inspire you today? What have they done and why do they inspire you?
I’m very inspired by Enrico Palmerino of Botkeeper. I’ve known him personally for some time now and it’s impressive how he entered the US bookkeeping space with a new and innovative AI solution. Many accounting firms from the West to East coast are using his solution and one of the investors is a Google AI-focused venture fund.
What advice would you give to accountants or accounting firms who want to transform digitally?
First of all, ask yourself what is your digital strategy? You can use all the best technology solutions from the best suppliers but what is the digital strategy of your firm? I would tell them to be aware of the changes happening in the industry right now, accounting will be automated within 2-5 years. Start to think about the impact this digitisation will have on your workforce. Tackle the skills and talent shortage in our profession with an investment in education and training. Rethink your business model too. What is necessary to change from product selling (tax, reporting) to data-driven service selling. And don’t forget to take a look at your internal organisation. People are changing the industry, technology is only a tool - not the solution.
To hear Martin and other leading accountants share their digital transformation stories, join us at Fast Forward Studio on September 17th.