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Developing Data Fluency

By Raef Lawson, CMA, CSCA, CPA, CFA, CAE, and Daniel Smith, CMA
September 1, 2018
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Much like studying for a certification exam, gaining proficiency in coding and the data environment is a step-by-step process.

 

You’ve probably been reading and hearing a lot lately—including here in Strategic Finance—about the Digital Age and how it’s changing the management accounting profession. When we consider the profession as a whole, there is a brilliant future if we decide to seize the opportunity. For many years, the aspirational vision has been the evolution of the profession from one with a focus on the compilation and reporting of accounting information to one where management accountants are strategic business partners with a seat at the senior management table. For many companies, the need to devote resources to the more traditional core reporting responsibilities of finance has precluded, or at least impaired, this transformation.

 

Technological advances can help this change take place. It’s freeing the finance function from the need to perform rote, repetitive tasks, enabling it instead to better support decision making and assist in strategy formulation and implementation. And technology will provide the finance function with the ability to use organizational data to provide greater insights into the business, unlocking enterprise value and empowering finance professionals to become true business partners.

 

Yet you’ve likely heard also about how technologies like RPA (robotic process automation) and AI (artificial intelligence) are eliminating accounting and finance jobs, especially routine, entry-level ones. You may also be wondering how all this will impact you and your career. You wouldn’t be alone: A recent IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) survey found that 42% of management accounting professionals are worried that technology will eliminate their jobs, with those doing general accounting functions most concerned.

 

WHERE TO START

 

Many of us are midcareer (or later). We’ve probably spent quite a bit of time becoming proficient in Excel or a similar spreadsheet product so that we can do our jobs well. We may have expanding job responsibilities or be working in a downsized environment, which keeps us busy. Yet we read articles (perhaps overblown) proclaiming that “Excel is dead,” think about the IT skills we possess, and wonder what the impact of that might be on our future.

 

Young people or those early in their careers aren’t immune to the impact of changing technology, nor are they always well prepared for the evolving practice environment. It’s no secret that accounting programs at colleges and universities are scrambling to keep up with the pace of change in information technology (IT). For too many programs, the IT content consists of requiring students to learn QuickBooks and gain proficiency in Excel.

 

The bottom line is that, regardless of where we are in our careers, many of us may be ill-prepared to succeed in the future. Worse still, the skills we need may seem impossible to obtain, and we don’t even know where to start.

 

That need not be the case. As “How to Master Digital Age Competencies” (see p. 30) suggests, learning the necessary skills is more feasible than you may realize. By completing the 40 to 80 hours of study detailed in that article, CMAs and other financial professionals can obtain the competencies required to adapt to the modern workplace.

 

Of course, you may be skeptical about this assertion. How can such a short amount of study yield such benefits? To that end, one of us, an experienced management accountant whose IT skills needed to be updated, undertook the study recommended in our companion article. Providing advice and moral support along the way was the other of us, an experienced data scientist. We hope by sharing some of that personal experience from Raef’s perspective, we can provide some insight into the personal challenges you might face and advice on how to overcome any obstacles and keep going.

 

RAEF’S JOURNEY

 

Beginning the process is a bit scary but also exciting. I had always wanted to do this, but I wasn’t sure where to start. As Dan pointed out to me at the time, getting started is the important first step. “How to Master Digital Age Competencies” can help guide you. And having someone—a friend, coworker, colleague, or mentor—who has experience in this area and can give advice and be a source of support can be helpful.

 

As I started to get into the coding, I began to see how it could be really useful. It was reminiscent of accessing multiple Excel spreadsheets, but it seemed easier to do. I did start to wonder how to access this data environment in the real world. Dan noted that I wasn’t alone in this concern. Accessing data in a real business scenario is a common stumbling block for many as they learn SQL or other analytics programming languages. Unfortunately, there’s a “chicken and egg” problem. First you have to demonstrate competence in SQL to get access to a SQL database, but how do you do show you’re competent in SQL without accessing a SQL database? Download SQL Server Express with SQL Server Management Studio, and include the optional data (http://bit.ly/2O0djOm), which is how about half of SQL analysts access their databases.

 

After the initial euphoria and excitement of the new venture began to fade, staying motivated became a challenge. As Dan suggested to me, it could be from a lack of real-world application. If the material still feels too abstract or hypothetical, look for real-life examples and applications. Perhaps strike up a conversation with a SQL developer or analyst at your business. They’ll have plenty of relevant examples to keep you motivated.

 

STEP BY STEP

 

Some of the coding exercises can be challenging. With those and the concepts in general, I approached the process like studying for a certification exam. Proceed step by step, and loop back to topics if needed. Don’t forget it’s okay to search for the concepts online using a search engine to find guidance. In fact, if you ask most good programmers what their top skills are, effective Googling would probably be in the top five.

 

As I continued to work and practice, my comfort level with the basic functions grew. Don’t worry if the more advanced skills continue to be challenging. At this point, you only need awareness-level knowledge, not the deep conceptual knowledge. It’s perfectly okay to search for code syntax or a general question online. You’re going to be working on a computer when you’re using this stuff, after all.

 

Reading this may remind you of something challenging you’ve done in the past—maybe studying for the CMA exam, maybe completing a college course. You can do this! Read our accompanying article, and start preparing today for your future career.

 

 

Raef Lawson, Ph.D., CMA, CSCA, CPA, CFA, CAE, is professor-in-­residence and vice president of research and policy at IMA. You can reach him at (201) 474-1532 or rlawson@imanet.org.
Daniel Smith, CMA, is the head of Innovation Architecture at Theory Lane Cloud Solutions and a member of IMA’s Dallas Fort Worth Area ­Chapter. He can be reached at daniel.smith@theorylane.com.
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