The changing role of accounting education in a tech-centric future: Insights from AICPA Global Roundtable

CPA Australia's Dr Simon Eassom catches up with Dr Amanda White at WCOA 2018. Photo: Capture Content.

Depending on who you believe, accounting is either doomed to obsolescence in a few short years or in the midst of an evolution that will see accountants hold the most trusted role in a business.

By Shannon Cuthbert

No matter which camp you fall in, there’s no denying the shadow of emerging technology looms large across the industry. Given its potential to reshape accounting, it should come as no surprise that both sides of the discussion were explored in depth at the AICPA Global Executive Roundtable held in Sydney on November 4, ahead of the World Congress of Accountants (WCOA).

Tech-enabled trust

The resistance of the accounting industry to change was a recurring theme throughout the roundtable discussions.

While almost half (49 per cent) of accountants globally would like to automate small administrative tasks like number crunching, data entry, email and diary management according to the Practice of Now 2018 report from Sage, the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) and a technology-driven upheaval of the industry is still a topic of consternation for many accountants who have read the headlines announcing the death of the industry.

The overwhelming response from roundtable delegates, however, was that these fears are misplaced. Rather than replacing accountants, technology should be considered a tool that will allow the industry to focus on one of its most vital roles – being a trusted adviser for clients.

Across industries, clients are finding trust is a rare commodity. In the face of this climate of mistrust, the question for the accounting profession shouldn’t be “will a robot take my job?”, but “how can I take advantage of emerging tech tools to better service and guide my clients”? the roundtable posited.

The evolution of education

Life-long learning has been a concept championed by the accounting profession for many years and, as a result, most accountants have a great depth and specificity of knowledge.

This specificity has been gained at the expense of knowledge breadth and while the traditional approach towards professional development has worked historically, the rapid evolution of technology and its impact on the role of accountants has necessitated a significant shift in the structure of the education system.

Dr Simon Eassom, CPA Australia’s Executive General Manager Member Education says the decline in young people wanting to become accountants, due to fear of their job becoming redundant in the near future, illustrated the need for educational change.

“Hybrid skills are needed by accountants at all levels to advance their careers and earning potential. Employers are looking, for example, for accountants who also have API [application programming interface] development or web management backgrounds,” Dr Eassom says.

“From an education perspective, we need to move from ‘industrial push’ model where we are pushing out content for students and members to learn, to ‘learner-centric’ model driven by the multiplicity of requirements that accountants are facing. We should be developing a learning ecosystem where accountants can choose what they learn next based on what will be best for them.”

The issue of whether traditional learning is still relevant isn’t limited to the accounting industry.

A recent report from EY showed that 42 per cent of current and past university graduates feel their degree requires transformation as digital technologies take off in the workplace. However, as an industry that relies heavily on post-graduate certification, the accounting profession is uniquely placed to take advantage of any potential education reform.

“In the past, if people wanted to change careers they would traditionally do a big, macro piece of learning like an MBA,” Dr Eassom says.

“Technology will lead to more continuous micro-learning, so people are constantly building their hybrid skillsets.

“For CPA Australia, our challenge is to map different competencies against potential career frameworks, so our members can decide what to learn based on where they want their career to go.”

Over the coming decade, there will undoubtedly be significant changes in what is expected of accountants, and the skills needed to meet these expectations.

According to delegates at the roundtable, there needs to be a push from the industry towards additional hard skills such as data analytics that will complement existing accounting expertise.

Perhaps more importantly, the roundtable concluded, there also needs to be far more emphasis on soft skills to ensure accountants can gain and retain client trust – and set themselves apart from the machines. 

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