In one of the biggest surprises of 2016, the industry association Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand unveiled a project called Kairos to help its members move from analogue work processes to digital.
Early reports said the project would train accountants in using data analytics tools on clients’ accounting software files.
I had a long chat to Paul Meissner, owner of 5 Ways Chartered Accountants and a councillor on a CAANZ panel, who has been involved with Kairos from the start. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Digital First: This came out of the blue. Who’s idea was it and why was it so secret?
Meissner: It was the brainchild of Lee White (CEO of CAANZ) who wanted to do something for public practitioners because he recognised they were doing it tough. The secrecy around it had nothing to do with competing with anyone. It’s not a competition play.
We were keeping it quiet while we worked out what it was going to become. We wanted to make sure we were meeting the needs of practitioners before we announced everything. The secrecy is a little overplayed, we were just waiting until we had something to announce.
Digital First: And what exactly is Kairos?
Meissner: It’s a program that helps members in practice move from analogue to digital and there are four elements. The first is data analytics, which we call the Predictive Accountant. It’s based around the Microsoft Power BI system which is a pretty amazing tool.
Now that program is publicly available, there are no surprises or secrecy in what it is or does. CAANZ have partnered with a data scientist and other vendors to take the data that public practitioners have and build connectors to Microsoft Power BI.
Digital First: What’s the advantage of CAANZ reselling Microsoft Power BI?
Meissner: The system that CAANZ will build or own or sell will be the data connections using everybody’s open API, from Xero, MYOB, Sage, QuickBooks and any other system that accountants use. We may bring in weather data if we think that is needed.
PowerBI is just the engine that crunches the data analytics. But you have to feed it with relevant data and to get the answers out of it.
CAANZ wants to build the connectors so that that data can flow from any system into PowerBI with almost very little work.
When a new CA member signs up, out of the box, short of setting up an API connection, they won’t need to do any export/import or data manipulation to use it. They just set it up through the tool and it can almost immediately unlock the data of all their clients into Power BI.
Digital First: How will an accounting firm use this program?
Meissner: You just dump in raw data and with very little set-up you can ask the system to give the answer to any question you want. It’s like Siri for data.
Inside of one minute I dumped in every invoice I’ve ever sent in a CSV file – all my invoices, when they were issued, when they were paid and for how much. It took one minute to import and set it up. I could then type in the search bar, “Who are my top five clients for the past 365 days?”
It also ranked my clients by average day taken to pay. It gave me both those answers straight away as a graph or in a very simple form.
Digital First: And how could you use it with your clients?
Meissner: If I could do that in one minute for my own business, imagine what I could do with a connection to all my clients’ MYOB or Xero data? Every member that signs up, syncs their clients’ data and almost immediately will be able to ask any question that they’ve ever wanted to ask.
If you add data like time of day, say if you knew when the transaction was raised, you could ask, “Which hours of the day do I sell the most gear?”
Now practitioners could have done it in a spreadsheet. We know what we could do with the data but instead of it taking us three hours in Excel to get the answer, CA members will be able to do it in seconds.
Power BI is available to anyone but we’re not talking about an hour per client to import and export the data. We’re talking about tools to plug in any accounting system or practice management software. We’re only at the beginning; who knows what else we can plug in down the track.
Digital First: How will accountants know what to do with this program?
Meissner: You just type in, “What is my best selling product?” That is as hard as it gets. It’s like Siri. You might have to rephrase the question but you don’t have to go back and retouch the data. You just have to keep firing questions at it and it gives you the answer. Then it pins the question to a board and every time new data syncs you’ve got the new answer.
Digital First: You say it won’t compete with the accounting software vendors, but they have been talking about business intelligence as an area they are interested in.
Meissner: Will it compete? Sure, but probably with your Crunchboards, Fathom, those kinds of things, rather than Xero or other programs.
Xero has a magnificent amount of data. But what we’re seeing is that a lot of firms will never be one provider. We need things that are vendor agnostic. One of the key benefits, as against tools that are inside accounting software, is that this product doesn’t give every member the answer to five questions. It gives them the ability to answer 500 questions. Their own questions. The questions I want to ask about my business I guarantee are different to the business down the road.
Digital First: Ok so what are the other three elements of Kairos?
Meissner: The second is the Connected Practice. A lot of people are doing it, and we’re going to do it in a vendor neutral way. We are helping members understand how interconnected systems can share the data from all its systems and work from real live data. How their email can link with their CRM, the tax software with their clients’ accounting software.
That will include experiential workshops and other educational pieces.
Digital First: And the third?
Meissner: The third is an accelerator or incubator hub. We ran the first one a month ago. It was a two-day intensive course looking at practically supporting practitioners as they move from analogue to digital. It covers analytics, the connected practice, social media and other things.
Digital First: It sounds like this is a two-day course in a training centre tailored for established practices only?
Meissner: Yes. Someone starting out could use the incubator to impress a client. It was definitely a great way for practitioners to immerse themselves in their business and really think about the way they could be doing business, and learning from peers.
There will also be a web portal on the CAANZ website that will drive the information around all these pillars and provide tools and knowledge and resources. It’s still being developed.
The incubator includes project teams to work on tools or templates or algorithms for members to use. You put together a team (of unrelated members) to understand how you would apply the data.
Digital First: And the fourth pillar?
Meissner: Education. There will be an accounting analytic curriculum in the CA program. They’re also looking at a Masters of Data Analytics to help accountants upskill in data analytics.
Digital First: Will that analytics curriculum be compulsory for CA members?
Meissner: I’m not sure. Currently every module is compulsory, but (the course is) under review. The industry needs a ridiculous number of data analysts, I think about 20,000 jobs.
Part of the education piece would be the development of accounting analytics, content and curriculum but also general education content around data analytics. Non-accountants may end up doing the Masters program.
Digital First: A question from a reader – how will Microsoft Power BI connect to all the very old versions of practice management software? Will practices be forced to upgrade? And how will CAANZ and its partners cope with the amount of work to get them working on this platform?
Meissner: The power of Power BI is that anything you can get out to a CSV or Excel file you can dump into it. You don’t need it to integrate back into your practice management system. But if you have data that you can get out in a CSV file it will come out, (whether the system is) old or new.
Anything you can get in a CSV file you can get it into Power BI. This will help members use any program. Maybe not all programs on day one but if there is a group of members using a particularly outdated software, that might be something for one of the project teams in the accelerator hub.
The CA ANZ is only loosely guiding this program. The attitude is, let’s largely let the members take it and digest it and dictate the direction.
Digital First: Will Microsoft Power BI prefer working with cloud accounting software?
Meissner: This is not a system just for members that have clients on cloud based solutions. We’re talking about extracting data from desktop software. So you could hold a data file (from a desktop accounting program) in Microsoft OneDrive and you set the frequency at when you want to synchronise it with Power BI.
Digital First: Will you benchmark firms against each other?
Meissner: I don’t think so. It hasn’t been mentioned. At the beginning we’re really talking about on a business by business basis. A CA in practice can sync their client’s data and get a great feeling about their client.