A New Heroic Age

IMGCAP(1)]All professions have their heroes and their golden ages. For accountants, it might very well be Fra Luca Pacioli enunciating the principles of double-entry bookkeeping, or Col. Arthur Carter of the New York State Society of CPAs proudly telling the Senate that no one needed to audit auditors: “Our conscience” would take care of that.

That last was in 1933, during what many would consider one of accounting’s most heroic moments, when, with the economy broken and public trust in the markets at a shocking low, the profession stepped up to help underpin our financial system by attesting to the veracity of the information presented in corporate financial statements — a function the profession continues to fill almost a century later. That jibes with a fairly common historical narrative, which holds that the roots of current accounting and auditing lie in the need of international investors in the 19th century for reliable information about large-scale industrial endeavors, particularly railroads. Accountants rose to the challenge, the narrative continues, and that led to their being asked in the 1930s to attest to the pinnacle of corporate information, the public company financial statement.

But there’s another way of reading that history, another historical narrative to consider, that I recently heard laid out by journalist Adam Davidson, who is an economics columnist at The New York Times Magazine. Speaking at an American Institute of CPAs’ event, Davidson described a historical arc with the same starting point — the emergence of extremely complicated industrial enterprises as a result of the Industrial Revolution. He called this “the Heroic Age” of accounting, but not for accountants’ role in attesting to business information for investors. Instead, he called it heroic for the contributions accountants made to the creation of the enterprises themselves: the insights and advice they were able to provide business owners as they struggled with new organizations of unprecedented size and scope. Accountants helped owners understand how these new businesses worked — how they used resources and generated both costs and profits, and how they could be organized to do both better. Accountants played a critical role in forming the world of modern business.

And then, in Davidson’s narrative, the profession made a critical mistake in the 1930s — turning away from creativity and forward-thinking business advice in favor of the backward-looking compliance function of auditing. The result, he suggested, was a degree of stagnation, and a decline in greatness from the profession’s Heroic Age.

I’m oversimplifying both narratives in my presentation, no doubt, but I thought Davidson’s approach was interesting given two major current trends: the ongoing commoditization of many of the profession’s core services, and the countervailing move to find more value-added services to offer. More and more, technology will render the old-fashioned audit less valuable, and eventually unnecessary. For all the respect the profession is due for serving as a watchdog, watchdogs have largely been replaced by alarm systems and closed-circuit TV. It would be best for the profession to build its reputation on services that will always be in demand: creativity, future-focused thinking, problem-solving.

As in the early 19th century, the era we’re moving into now is one of tremendous organizational change; in business, there are a host of new developments where a creative accountant can help shape the world. To be fair, many accountants are doing this — and have always done it — but for the profession as a whole, it may help to think of it less as a jettisoning of the services and methods of the past century, and more as a return to the Heroic Age.

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