Accountants look to educate younger generation in latest tech skills

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Institute of Management Accountants president and CEO Jeff Thomson told an online meeting Wednesday of the Accountants Club of America about how the profession can appeal more to young people by emphasizing technology know-how in areas like data analytics and data science.

“This really is a race for relevance and the future of our profession,” said Thomson. “It really is about velocity, the rate of change of technology and our ability to absorb and leverage technology for betterment of our effectiveness and efficiency.”

He sees a move in college and university accounting programs to train students in technology skills. “More and more data science and data analytics is being brought into play at the graduate and undergraduate curriculum, which is a good thing,” said Thomson. “It’s part of this race for relevance and influence in our profession so we can better create the story and we can better tell the story.”

Institute of Management Accountants president and CEO Jeff Thomson speaking at the Accountants Club of America online meeting via Zoom

Thomson worked as a data scientist at AT&T 40 years ago before going into the accounting profession, but he believes that the profession needs to do more to make itself more appealing to the younger generation.

“The other part of the race to relevance and the sense of urgency is what do we look like as a profession, whether you’re running a small firm, a big firm, a big public corporation or a small business,” said Thomson. “What do we look like to a 6th grader, an 8th grader, a 12th grader, or a freshman in college? What do we look like as a profession? The pessimist could say we look like a pretty darn boring profession.”

The IMA hired a data scientist last year who has been helping the IMA do studies of the accounting profession and shift internally as it operates mostly on a remote basis amid the pandemic. He believes that accountants need to familiarize themselves more with data science and analytics.

“It’s very easy to outsource advanced analytics to others, to the Big Four, to consultants,” said Thomson. “As we speak, at the lower end of the supply chain, jobs are being replaced or displaced.” He sees routine, repeatable tasks, transaction processing, reconciliations being performed through robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and cognitive computing technology. “That’s good for business,” he added. “It’s operational efficiency. It’s supply chain efficiency. It’s inevitable. The magic is that more value-added jobs are going to be created in the finance and accounting supply chain. But they’re only going to be created if we create them through advanced competencies and skills. If we outsource these advanced analytical jobs at the higher end of the supply chain, we outsource our future. The race to relevance is that we must outpace and outrace the advancement in technology. If we do that, if we commit to upskilling, to our entire supply chain, to our entire value chain — that includes academia, that includes the firms, that includes the accounting associations, AICPA, IMA, the state societies — then we absolutely can win and will win the race for relevance.” He sees both the CMA and CPA exams moving more toward testing for such skills.

The presentation had originally been scheduled as an in-person breakfast meeting before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but the Accountants Club of America needed to change it into a Zoom meeting instead, a first for the venerable New York-based club, whose history dates back to the early 1900s. The club also announced an upcoming change in leadership Wednesday, with Peter Frank, a partner at Schulman Lobel, nominated to take over the position of president from J. Michael Kirkland, a former president of the New York State Society of CPAs and owner of JMK Consulting, next year.

“I feel like I’m in esteemed company, as I hope to follow in the footsteps of J. Michael Kirkland, our current president, but also Charles Waldo Haskins and Elijah Watts Sells, back to the ACA founding in 1906,” said Frank. “Since then our club presidents and members have been key people at their firms and organizations, as well as active members of the AICPA, the New York State Society of CPAs and other state societies.” He hopes to have the club meeting again in person in the near future. He and Kirkland discussed how accountants are using technologies like Zoom and other remote tools not only for meetings, but also for their day-to-day work.

“How are we going to use this technology for conducting audits?” said Kirkland. “Now we’re seeing an upswing, or potential upswing, in fraud. That’s going to be a key hurdle for our profession to overcome, but also to teach us to be a little bit sharper and dig a little bit deeper into our analysis of the business, profits and losses, and how they’re conducting their business.”

“For my firm, as public accountants this tax season, it was a little strange for me because I had just come to this firm in January, and by the time COVID struck, I had hardly met anyone at the firm, except for partners,” said Frank. “But we were able to operate, at least on the tax side, and on the accounting side, pretty efficiently. We set our staff up with at least two monitors at home and a scanner. I don’t do much auditing, but many documents are digitized anyway. We need software to do the testing through the computer. I also see that digital currency is going to take off a little more quickly because of these circumstances and these times. I think that’s a great area for us as accountants to really understand and be in the forefront of knowledge so we can assist our clients in understanding something that’s definitely coming.”

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