In June 2018, Kimberly Ellison-Taylor (CPA, CGMA, and Global Accounting Strategy Leader at Oracle) completed her term as chairman of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (the Association), the global association created by the integration of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). Earlier in the year, Ellison-Taylor had already finished her tour as chairman of the AICPA.
That doesn’t mean that Ellison-Taylor has stopped having a strong influence on the accounting profession. In addition to being recognized as one of the Most Powerful Women in Accounting for 2018, her peers recently voted her No. 3 on the 2018 Accounting Today list of the Top People in Public Accounting. The accolades reflect Ellison-Taylor’s continuing importance as a thought leader and advocate for her profession, as well as her position as a mentor, role model, and symbol of progress to a younger generation—within the accounting community as well as outside of it.
We spoke with Ellison-Taylor about the future of accounting and finance at a time when technology innovation presents accountants with new challenges, emerging opportunities, and—perhaps above all—the prospect of unprecedented change.
For the second year in a row, your peers have recognized you as one of the most influential people in accounting. What do you think contributes to this role—to being recognized as an influencer and even as a visionary for your profession?
My first thought when I realized that I was on the listing with so many amazing leaders in the profession was appreciation. I am delighted to represent Maryland as well as Oracle. Many factors contribute to being recognized as having an influential impact on the profession including my role as a STEM leader in an environment where technology has such a significant role in transforming organizations. I also think that because we are in environment where next-generation leadership and pipeline are key organization priorities, my voice as a minority female is especially visible.
We are seeking the best and brightest professionals to join the various accounting and finance organizations and it’s no secret that we are competing with many industries. I have spoken at length about the competitive advantage and strategic business imperative of inclusive organizations. I grew up in the inner city of Baltimore and hope that my example provides hope and motivation to little girls and boys around the world. My perspective is that an inclusive environment is good for our members and businesses.
Further, I’m the fourth chairman to come from a non-public practice background. My term as chairman aligned well with the Association’s initiatives to provide enhanced resources for business and industry members.
Technology, next-generation leadership, business and industry, diversity and inclusion—collectively, these areas add up to a very different, and distinctive, voice in the profession. I work with amazing, progressive leaders across every segment of our profession, and I very much appreciate that my colleagues recognize my contributions.
What do you mean when you describe yourself as a “technology-centric accountant”? Is that still an unusual position for an accountant to take today?
Today, it is an unusual position but we are working very hard to increase the awareness and competencies needed to operate in the digital age. One day, we will no longer need the term “technology-centric” accountant as technology skill sets become more pervasive.
I view technology as a game-changer for accounting. Technology innovation is redefining how we work, how we audit clients, how our financial system functions, and how businesses manage their financial affairs. Accounting is what we do but technology is how we do it. I am standing at the intersection of accounting and technology with routine discussions about standards and also cyber security and artificial intelligence (AI).
Who owns these new responsibilities in the organization? The chief financial officer or the chief information officer?
Both. I think the success of an organization will increasingly depend on how well its financial leader and technology leader work together. One of my goals, in many cases, is to bring together those people, along with other finance and technology influencers in an organization.
There has definitely been a disconnect between those two roles in many organizations. As a result, they manage technology as a cost center—they focus on “keeping the lights on.” In many cases, the technology person is only visible when something breaks or doesn’t work right.
Given the strategic importance of technology, what organization can avoid listening to its technology leaders? We’ve all seen examples of iconic brands that no longer exist because they couldn’t or wouldn’t respond to disruption—in most cases fueled by technology. While the role of a CFO involves managing risk and controlling costs, the CFO has additional responsibilities to help drive new solutions and offerings. Moreover, the CIO has a critical operational role to play with regard to innovation and strategy and must have a seat at the executive table.
There has to be a balance between those two roles; each must be willing to listen. The person on the finance side will encourage IT to focus on revenue, on market share, on competitiveness. The IT side will convey the importance of technology and how it is needed to improve the customer experience, supply chains, time to market, and especially security.
You’ve touched on a few examples of technology that matter—or that should matter—to accountants. Are there a couple that you see as especially important?
One would be blockchain. Every day, we see new use cases coming into the discussion: finance and accounting, tax, elections, real estate, healthcare, are just a few. An online distributed ledger that is unalterable is something to definitely take seriously. Now is the time to consider whether this technology will work in your organization—whether it’s for greater responsiveness, lower costs, more efficiency, etc. The option of waiting to see how it works first in other organizations before considering a pilot is not really an option. Using this approach in today’s environment could result in being left behind.
That’s why I was glad to see Oracle roll out our Blockchain Cloud Service. It’s yet another way that Oracle provides value for our customers—how we are enabling organizations to anticipate the future, and prepare for it.
Second, there are many benefits for accountants in artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data—with improved customer service, greater efficiency along the supply chain, reduced risks, as well as the cost of compliance. Further, accountants will be freed up from repetitive tasks, and will gain access to knowledge that once required years of experience to achieve.
Third, and this is broader than a single technology, is cyber security. Every day in the news, we receive alerts on data breaches, and the attacks are happening with increased frequency. The loss of consumer confidence, damaged brand reputation, and regulator-imposed penalties make this an area that organizations can not afford to ignore. And we see audit committees and executives asking harder questions about security and privacy controls.
This is actually an area where the other technologies I mentioned—blockchain, AI, machine learning—must all play a role.
You mentioned the potential for these technologies to help the accounting profession. But is there also concern that AI, for example, might actually overtake and replace human accountants and other finance professionals?
Yes, I think there’s some concern. But so much of what a CPA does is based on capabilities that AI can’t match today and might not be able to match for a long time, if ever. We make decisions using many considerations that give humans an advantage over machines: ethics, context, people management, qualitative factors, critical thinking, etc. We don’t need to worry—we need to be prepared. There are a number of resources available that provide overviews, tutorials, and webcasts. I also would encourage review of the solutions offered by Oracle.