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Bots, Data, AI—Part of Retraining the Big Four’s Workforce (1)

Feb. 14, 2019, 5:32 PMUpdated: Feb. 14, 2019, 9:32 PM

Jay E. Sternberg, a 30-year accounting industry veteran, has been busy beefing up his statistics skills—taking hours of classes in data visualization and data analysis.

He’s earned two badges through a learning program Ernst & Young LLP has rolled out to help its accountants and business consultants, and he plans to go for a third.

“The reality is, the accounting firms of yesterday are gone,” said Sternberg, a people advisory services partner in EY’s tax practice. “We need to up our game.”

Professional development is not new, but adding technology to more traditional training has emerged as a necessity for the largest global accounting firms. After spending hundreds of millions to put cutting edge technology in the hands of their employees and clients, the firms are pushing hard to improve—and in some cases kick-start—the technology skills of their legions of accountants, auditors, and business consultants.

Many firms are sending all of their professionals through introductory technology courses. Others offer deeper training on specific tools and techniques. Some are blending technology skills into existing training.

Varying in design and scope, the training generally introduces staff to robotics process automation, advanced data analytics, and machine learning.

“Without competent people, technology is only going to take you so far. And it’s not far enough,” Mike Baccala, U.S. assurance innovation leader for PwC LLP, told reporters at the firm’s offices in New York last month.

Holistic Change

Webinars, videos, extended assignments, podcasts, and classroom training are all in the mix.

Training goals range from basic—so that workers are comfortable talking to their clients about new tools and the business implications of technology changes—to advanced, including building news tools and redesigning techniques for staff to use. To complete the training, employees must squeeze in 10 to 60 hours of extra work at airports, hotels, and between meetings.

BDO USA LLP and Deloitte LLP also are preparing workers to meet future client needs. For BDO, that means looking five to 10 years out, said Cathy Moy, the firm’s chief people officer, in a written statement to Bloomberg Tax.

The firm built technology changes into existing training—all part of what Moy described as a “holistic organizational change.”

BDO wants its staff to concentrate on work requiring deeper analysis and judgment and let technology pick up the manual, repetitive tasks.

No Accountant Left Behind

The industry has been slow to reckon with the arrival of automation, which has already eliminated some routine and time-consuming tasks accountants traditionally handled.

Professional groups including the Institute of Management Accountants and the American Institute of CPAs have rolled out new training. The IMA also has made certification changes to help accountants cope with massive technology disruptions.

Hiring strategies also have changed as the firms have added data scientists and engineers to professional teams in order to respond to the demand for technology skills. But hiring alone isn’t enough.

To address the skills gap, PwC, also known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, launched a digital fitness app to measure employees’ digital skills two year ago. Since then, the firm has started sending staff through a technology foundations program with the goal that all 50,000 U.S. employees would complete the basic training.

The firm also offers what it calls a digital accelerator program. Think of it as a technology boot camp. Staff assigned to the program dig deeper into a particular tool or technology, then explore possible uses to take back to their teams and clients.

“We need every single person at this firm to get on this journey,” said Maria Moats, U.S. audit and assurance leader for PwC. “We made a commitment to everyone that if you choose to come with us, we will upskill you. And we will not leave you behind.”

Year-end Goal

By the end of 2019, KPMG LLP aims to send most of its advisory practice professionals through a technology foundations course—a mix of online and in-person learning. The program, which is open to professionals across the firm, represents roughly 10 hours of training per person, as much as a quarter of all training professionals will receive in a year, Corey Munoz, chief learning officer for KPMG, told Bloomberg Tax.

“We’re really focusing on raising that level of capability across the firm. We truly believe that is so important, no matter where you sit in the firm, is to have that general understanding of technology and how it’s impacting various industries and clients that we serve,” Munoz said.

Staff explore data analytics, cyber security and blockchain among other topics. The program aims to introduce staff to the technical abilities that the firm can offer and to help them talk to clients about their own technology changes, Munoz said.

Homegrown Talent

Ernst & Young LLP has taken a different approach—awarding badges to employees like Sternberg who achieve a certain level of expertise in areas like data analytics, AI, blockchain, even management skills like inclusive intelligence, Carolyn Slaski, EY Americas vice chair of talent, told Bloomberg Tax.

Slaski said the firm can’t rely on hiring alone to add the technology and analytical skills that its professionals need now and will need in the future.

Since the voluntary program, open to all employees worldwide, launched in November 2017, more than 4,200 badges have been awarded, with thousands more in the works, she said.

(Updates with KPMG comments starting in paragraph 19. )

To contact the reporter on this story: Amanda Iacone in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Harrington at