Digital disruption, automation and regulatory changes are redefining the role of the accountant. While the time-honoured goals of the profession remain the same, how accountants guide their clients to reach these goals is changing.
Compare today’s world, with cloud computing and all that it has brought, with the world of just 10 years ago – the difference is staggering. Now think about, or for those who can, think back to, what being an accountant 30 or 40 years ago was like.
With this continuing evolution, the day-to-day skills required to succeed in the profession have changed. While a foundation set in the technical competencies and accounting standards still is and always will be a necessity, there are so many more skills now required too.
As a result the way in which accountants are educated and trained needs to change.
Learning to unlearn
The industry of today is almost unrecognisable from the industry of 40 years ago, and who knows what it will be like in another 40 years’ time. So how do you prepare budding accountants for that kind of future?
In light of rapid and unpredictable change, one of the most important skills an accountant can have is the ability to adapt. “Students need to learn how to adapt, how to unlearn and how to change,” says Geoff Frost from Sydney University.
“We need to produce students that have the capacity to learn the technical skills but we also have the capacity to unlearn them. “You look at financial reporting and the changes that have occurred in just the last decade in that space…any student who graduated with a very strong understanding of the technical skills in that space 10 years ago would have had to relearn or retrain already.”
According to Mr Frost, the foundations of accounting – the technical skills – are absolutely essential, but only to provide accountants with the tools to be able to understand the language and landscape and be part of the conversation. It’s the more generic skills, he says, like the ability to effectively communicate, which are much more important these days.
This is something that becomes abundantly clear when talking to leaders across the industry. Chris Hooper, chief executive of Accodex Partners says these are the types of skills aspiring accountants need to have developed by the time they graduate, and these are the types of skills employers look for.
“Universities should take responsibility for delivering career ready graduates,” he says. “Universities need to be providing an industry-relevant education that includes the skills required for the accountant of the future.
“Young accounting graduates will need to hit the ground running. They will be client-facing from day one. They will be expected to win clients, nurture client relationships and manage workflow with their overseas team,” Mr Hooper says.
According to Mr Frost, the higher education sector has heard and accepts the demands of the profession and is altering courses accordingly.
“In terms of moving forward over the next couple of years the real change is not so much what they’re learning in class, which will evolve over time anyway, it’s a step up in the additional professional development skills.
“We are looking at the different types of skills, the social skills in particular that are necessary for employment environment, engagement skills, communication skills, and not just treating these as something of an ad-hoc learning,” he says.
Kim Watty, an associate dean with the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University agrees, saying these types of skills are vital for students’ career prospects. Reflecting this, Deakin University has defined eight learning outcomes it hopes all students achieve, with just one focused on discipline knowledge. Because, according to Ms Watty, students should leave university with an array of skills to guide them through their working life.
“We have eight graduate learning outcomes at the university level, and one of them is about discipline knowledge; the other seven are about communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, digital literacy, self-management, team work and global citizenship.”
Of course, Ms Watty says that doesn’t mean that technical skills are only worth one eighth of the whole show, “but what it says is that we are listening to employers who tell us that’s just one part of the expectations they have of students”.
In fact, a lot of the research around employers’ expectations of graduates conducted by Deakin says that employers have a “minimum expectation”, according to Ms Watty, of a “reasonable level of technical skills” but it’s the other skills that are much more important.
“We are not downplaying the technical but most students who come through an accounting degree are going to have that base technical knowledge, that’s a given. “It’s these other differentiating employability skills that we are really committed to.
“We don’t need any more research about what they want. We are very clear based on our own research of academics here and international research that says it is more than just the technical skills. We need graduates who are going to be adaptable, resilient, work well in teams, problem solve – the usually suspects that come out,” she says.
Ms Watty speaks passionately about these types of skills, even defending them against the term “soft”, which she believes devalues them. “For me ‘soft skills’ is a bit outdated,” she says. “We think of them as employability skills, I think ‘soft skills’ has a connotation that they aren’t as important as the hard technical skills.
“In our accounting major we mandated last year that all of our units would have at least 20 per cent of their assessment aligned to those employability skills.”
This mandate, according to Ms Watty, is a big step forward for the university and demonstrates the importance placed on imparting a wider range of skills.
“Mandating the 20 per cent of assessment across all of our core accounting units must provide opportunities for students to evidence those employability skills is really quite a big thing.
“The department of accounting has decided it is so important that we want to be sure that in every accounting unit the students are actually exposed to the development of these skills.” Reiterating what is now commonly known throughout the industry, Ms Watty says Deakin’s own research in accounting education shows that good scores and a demonstrated knowledge of the technical skills might get a graduate’s “foot in the door”, but candidates have to show more skills to actually get the job.
Now they’re technically learning
One of the biggest changes that has occurred, and continues to occur across the profession is the evolution of accounting technology.
From the first basic computerised ledgers to today’s cloud-based systems, with all their additional plug-ins, to whatever the future brings, technology defines the industry – accountants need to keep up.
“Deakin sees itself as being differentiated based on our use of technologies in learning,” notes Ms Watty. She says the university offers the accounting major in through four campuses – one of which is the cloud, a fact she seems particularly proud of.
“Digital literacy is a big thing at Deakin. We recognise that students are going into a world where being able to manipulate and understand data is absolutely critical … Deakin prides itself around being at the forefront of digital literacy.”
Of course, it’s not just Deakin focusing on digital literacy, as Mr Frost points out, “we have shifted the emphasis and make sure that there is accounting information systems well embedded in the programs”.
However, Mr Frost notes that universities are faced with constraints when it comes to overhauling their accounting curriculum that many disciplines don’t face.
“There is a struggle in terms of meeting the essential requirement for the professional accreditation and making sure we are flexible enough to adapt to what is the changing environment, not just servicing a very constrained definition of what is accounting.”
Nevertheless, both Mr Frost and Ms Witty agree there are novel ways in which universities can adhere to the professional requirements and still expand the curriculum to suit the changing industry.
Ms Watty says Deakin has implemented a system that helps improve accounting students’ technological skills while also helping to build employability skills. The university has rolled out what it calls an e-portfolio, based in the cloud, in which students are required to evidence professional capabilities as they relate to the accounting discipline with a view to improving their outcomes and providing evidence to employers of their ability to work in a team and to think critically.
They do these e-portfolios in each of the majors and with the intention that the students will learn to accumulate thisinformation. Ms Watty says it’s another way of embedding cloud technology and online information systems into the students thinking, as well as building employability skills, while continuing to cover the essential technical content too. Tasks like this, she says, implant a digital literacy into students while also teaching other valuable skills.
For the future
Given how quickly the industry is changing, very few technical skills learnt now will be relevant in 10 years’ time but more generic skills, like critical thinking, problem solving and the ability to effectively communicate are timeless.
For a profession as vital to the entire economy as accounting is, an outdated education system is not good enough.
Regardless of restrictions, education providers must find ways to deliver capable graduates. It is novel ideas that combine technical, technological and more generic skills that will help education providers to keep up, remain relevant and produce great graduates. This is where the future of education lies.