COVID-19 has impacted all of us in our personal and professional lives, we decided at CBO Search to launch a series of interviews with the main influencers in Tax Technology and share with our readers how this crisis has affected their work, how they adapted to it and with the ease of the lockdown what the future will be.
It is with great pleasure that we welcome Andrew Burman, with over 20 years hands-on experience in finance and tax transformation – including operational, data analytics, business transformation, process automation and technology implementation/change projects. Andrew has led a variety of business transformation projects and worked with multinational clients across a range of sectors to deliver operational change/transformations and provide strategic advice, often under difficult conditions and to tight time-frames.
For those who don’t know you, can you introduce yourself?
I currently lead Grant Thornton’s data and automation team in the UK and help coordinate our strategy for data analytics, automation and managed services globally. I’ve worked in this area for over 20 years – I started at Arthur Andersen and have held a number of roles both from a consulting and industry perspective over my career – all focused on innovation and delivery of change, across tax, finance and more widely.
Why did you choose to specialise in tax automation?
I don’t think I do specialise in tax automation – over the past few years our clients are looking for broader solutions which can be scaled across the business, not just a set of ‘point solutions’ for specific tax issues. My real passion lies in helping clients identify the operational change that is right for them and working closely with them to make it happen whether that lies in tax, finance or elsewhere. As an area of the business, tax is often overlooked from an investment perspective but there’s so much opportunity to help clients improve their efficiency, manage risk and increase the value that a range of functions can benefit from. Tax is a great place to start given the regulatory and compliance requirements it faces. Working in automation and operational change you can really make a difference, not just to Tax but to our client’s broader operating models and business. There’s a real buzz from helping our clients understand what’s possible and in solving their operational issues using technology. That’s especially true at the moment you show the client the solution you’ve built, working for the first time…when they realise they never have to run ‘that’ process manually again!
It’s interesting you mentioned that with the process automation you put in place, the difference is not limited to Tax but across the business, that highlights how transversal across business lines tax technology functions are. What has been your most complex project?
That’s a good question – there have been a few! Early in my career I was part of a team that helped one of the global Banks rebuild its tax reporting process from scratch in only a few months, after their existing system fell over. That was not only complex from a technical perspective but had an extremely short timeframe, so was a very focused delivery.
I’ve worked on a couple of public sector projects too which were both complex and significant in terms of scale – they focused on helping governments re-model their revenue systems to maximise collections at minimal cost and maximise transparency of the data – we needed to not only design a new system of taxation but also define how that would operationally work. Those projects lasted several years and involved not just technology but broader operational change, so I learned a lot from those.
More recently, I’ve led a project to help a start-up develop a global shadow payroll solution – it’s been a highly technical project both from a technology and tax perspective as we’ve had to help the client build a global model for the calculation engine and then local data inputs to drive country level calculations. That project is almost finished – I’m proud of our role in that project as we helped ‘crack’ the technology and data approach at the start and have worked closely with the client to turn the dream into reality.
Taking a client’s ideas from conception to reality shows what technology can do for tax and the business. In your opinion, what are the main trends in Tax Automation?
I’d say there are three core trends but the effect of them all is an acceleration towards more real time reporting, flexibility and helping tax to operate as a profit not a cost centre.
First – data.
The whole world of tax is a fast evolving area globally with authorities increasingly demanding more data, more often and in more detail, and sharing that data more readily (e.g across taxes in a jurisdiction and between each other) – so it’s important to have a real-time or near-time view of your data to identify any issues and resolve them before your data is shared. This also means less data sampling and more use of technology to look at each and every line item. Blockchain is still an evolving area in terms of Tax but will clearly drive more change in this area and initiatives such as Making Tax Digital in the UK show a clear direction for tax authorities. The entire focus of tax automation is changing from retrospective filing tools to pro-active data monitoring.
Second – technology.
The time where a suite of point solutions for individual taxes was the whole answer is, I think, coming to an end – a broader approach is increasingly needed as we move towards a time where there may be no more periodic reporting/tax returns – or at least one where the nature of those changes to more of a ‘true up’ or analysis led exercise. Increasingly I find myself talking about ‘technology for tax (and indeed finance)’ rather than ‘tax technology’ – there are a range of solutions which were never specifically developed with tax in mind but which can be hugely powerful to automate a process, drive decision making and produce analytics. Robotic Process Automation, ETL (data Extraction, Transformation and Loading tools) as well as Machine Learning routines to help automate decision making are the obvious areas which are driving automation now. Therefore, there is a much broader ecosystem to consider – any new project starts with an IT as well as a Tax and Finance discussion – they’re equally important to help you craft the right roadmap for each client. The increasing move to cloud-based technologies is clearly accelerating this trend. Interestingly this means that the single large transformation project of the past is increasingly being replaced by more modern agile, sprints, focused on helping clients deliver value early and then scale it, rather than having a single ‘grand’ transformation project mapped out from the start.
Third – operational approach.
There are two aspects here – firstly, what is the role of the Tax function and secondly, who should carry out each part of that role. At a high level, Tax and Finance are increasingly seen as profit, not cost, centres. This represents a huge opportunity to drive a step change in how these functions operate, and how (and when) they interact with the rest of the business. Again, this requires Tax and Finance to have input to business decisions earlier, which in turn means they need to integrate themselves more closely with the wider organisation. This requires the function itself to spend its time working pro-actively with the business and not on ‘traditional’ tax return processes at the end of the value chain. This directly impacts how Tax and function should actually work on a day-to-day basis. Traditionally, we’ve seen clients outsource entire functions or processes but the evolution of technology, both in terms of what it can do and where it sits (i.e. cloud) has made a much more flexible model possible – so things like ‘robotics as a service’, ‘machine learning as a service’ and a range of managed service offerings are becoming increasingly common. The result of this is a more flexible deployment of technology to ease specific ‘pain points’, freeing up the maximum possible time for these core functions to spend on working with their organisation to maximise value whilst reducing risk.
Increasingly, given how the world of Tax and Finance is evolving, clients are looking for a ‘future proof’ functions that help them meet today’s needs but also means they can evolve over time as demands from tax authorities, auditors and other parties change.
Those trends explain the flourishing diversity of the jobs in tax technology. At CBO we increasingly see demand from our clients for data related jobs such as data analysts, data mining or data modeller. What would be your main advice for someone who wants to start working in Tax Technology?
Reach out to people already working in the area and talk to them. This is a fast-developing area which has changed completely since I started my career, perhaps mostly over the last 5 years, and this will only continue.
Have a think about what you want to do – where are your strengths? There are a range of roles you could think about – in-house, in one of the technology firms or in a consulting/accounting firm, all of whom are growing their teams at the moment given how the market is developing.
Also think about what you want to do – do you want a more IT-focused role developing solutions or do you prefer working as more of a business analyst or project lead. In reality, most roles are a combination of these but the more people you talk to the more you’ll get an idea of what sort of role and organisation will help you play to your strengths.
It is a good idea to understand the roles, it is not always easy to transfer from a tax role to a tax technology one, it is good to think how the candidate can leverage its skills for the role he/she is looking for. How has your work and clients’ assignments changed under COVID-19?
We’ve still seen a strong market demand from clients looking to move forward with transformation projects – the impending requirements of VAT MTD have helped but we’ve also been working with clients who have learned the importance of resilience and flexibility under COVID – which lends itself to broader discussions around automation and especially the use of cloud based platforms to make sure core compliance and regulatory requirements can continue to be met, removing ‘key man’ risk wherever possible.
We’ve also been able to continue working for our clients remotely – depending on the client and project that might be remotely accessing their own IT or building solutions to automate processes and data analysis on our own systems for use ‘as a service’. As in many areas I think COVID has changed how we work with our clients and also accelerated the pace at which our clients are willing to embrace delivery of that chance.
I often think about what might have happened if COVID had struck say 5 years ago, where the technology (not just tax/finance related but also collaboration) just wasn’t as advanced and scaleable as it is today.
The way we work and think about projects is changing, at CBO Search, we have had several candidates starting their new roles and therefore projects for clients remotely, this is new territory! How do you find working from home? Does it come with challenges? Any benefits?
As a team I actually think we’re working better remotely – we have 2 ‘stand up sessions each day which enable us to connect as a group and ensure everyone is kept busy and focused – that wasn’t as possible before with senior team members ‘out and about’ at clients’, so I think in general we’re even more productive. I also definitely do not miss the commute!
I’m lucky in that I have a small study at home which means I can separate ‘work’ from ‘home’ life relatively easily. My wife is a teacher, so it’s been interesting to be in the same house as her leading a remote lesson to a class of 6th form pupils whilst connecting to client conference calls! I tend to start work around 8:30 and try to always take an hour’s break at lunch when I try to go out for some fresh air. One thing I have found is that, replacing face-to-face meetings with video calls means you are looking at a screen much more, so it’s important to break up the day at some point (or at least have some ‘traditional’ phone calls).
Thank you Andrew for sharing your career path, sharing the latest trends and your advice. It is true that the last 5 years has transformed the market in tax technology, this is an area which is fast evolving where Tax is no longer isolated from the business, making its remit much wider.