Accounting academics face a constant challenge when predicting the future of the profession to better prepare students to enter the workforce.
It’s easy to become skeptical of following the latest trends. As an undergraduate student taking an intermediate accounting course, I recall our book publisher rushing to provide a supplement on International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), as the speculation was that by the following fall, the United States was going to converge to IFRS. That was in the mid-1980s. While U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles have converged in some areas, a complete convergence still isn’t on the horizon 40 years later. That said, accounting and business education is on the brink of arguably the most significant period of change in decades.
New areas of knowledge are emerging that accounting and business educators must embrace. When I began my doctoral dissertation, my chair encouraged me to find a stream of research that was in its infancy so I could leverage my learning throughout my career. As I poured through practitioner articles, I became interested in the balanced scorecard, strategic management performance metrics for identifying and improving companies’ operations, and achieving external outcomes that emerged in accounting research in the mid-1990s. Yet I faced resistance from some faculty in my program and ultimately was required to write an essay justifying why the balanced scorecard was even an accounting topic. Now, performance measurement is recognized as an important aspect of a management accountant’s role. Accounting faculty need to be open to focusing on emerging topics and trends through which accountants can provide value by becoming subject matter experts.
Implementing sustainable business practices is a challenge that accounting professors and management accountants will need to grapple with. In part due to growing pressure from activist investors and regulators, business leaders are increasingly prioritizing making their business sustainable and dealing with the global impact of sustainability objectives, initiatives, and disclosures on operations, reporting, budgeting, and strategic planning. Despite the sense of urgency that forward-thinking business executives feel, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues have received only passing discussion in most business classes and have failed to gain widespread momentum in the majority of university accounting departments and business schools. Senior executives are struggling with how to manage various mandates and pressures in this changing environment. Accountants’ knowledge of performance measurement, experience evaluating business decisions, and financial planning and analysis skills enable us to partner with our organizations’ decision makers in facing sustainable business challenges strategically. Business and especially accounting educators will need to embrace sustainable business practices and metrics as an integral part of their curricula to prepare students to become leaders in the workplace.
Technology has also transformed the accounting profession and business education. As a student in the 1980s, I enrolled in a basic computer programming class, writing code for the mainframe computer, just to get technology experience. A few months into my first public accounting position, a partner asked me if I knew how to use Lotus (the most popular spreadsheet software at the time). He proceeded to show me how to start the program, handed me a Lotus instruction book, and asked me to work through the weekend to develop a spreadsheet to compute projections for a client’s business. I made so many mistakes in those days, but I learned from them and gained an appreciation of the fact that future success in accounting would require computer literacy.
Even with this awareness, I could never have predicted the growing importance of technology for business. In the 1990s, business schools added more classes focused on computer technology, with information systems courses becoming a requirement for accounting majors. Excel became the dominant spreadsheet software. The pace of technological change impacting accounting and finance was fairly steady until the past decade, when it accelerated significantly. Blockchain, while easy to dismiss as a fad or buzzword, triggered many changes to the business landscape from the way transactions are processed to smart contracts and the transformation of e-commerce. But it’s remained largely on the fringes of accounting education curricula. Now, technology, especially automation, and data analytics are directly changing the accounting and finance profession. Preparing students to embrace a data analytics mindset is forcing academics to reconsider not only the content of our course requirements but also how we deliver that content. A mastery of data analytics will become a necessity to be successful in accounting and business.
The future success of students and early-career accounting and finance professionals still requires them to be detail-oriented and ethical. Now, though, the skills we need to help them develop go well beyond learning the accounting cycle and being proficient in Excel. A significant challenge for accounting and business educators is to focus more on the application of concepts related to sustainability, ESG, technology, and data analytics, among other transformational trends, to facilitate the development of students’ business acumen. Many aspects of the finance function and business in general are shifting and evolving faster than ever before. A mandate for accounting and business educators is to define necessary building blocks to prepare students and young professionals for finance roles and update curricula accordingly. Embracing change is daunting, but our greatest success is how we contribute to our students’ future and make a positive impact on their careers.