Prepare students today for accountants’ shifting roles

Show students how emerging technologies could affect their careers.
By Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA

Technological disruption is here and is already driving significant change in the accounting landscape. Blockchain, cryptocurrencies, artificial intelligence (AI), and other emerging technologies will not only change the ways accountants work, but also what clients, consumers, and co-workers expect from them. Organizations, no matter what industry they operate within, produce and analyze vast quantities of information. Outside of the accounting field, customers and users are increasingly becoming used to products and services that are customized, personalized, and available on a continuous basis.

Faculty need to prepare themselves and their students for these changing expectations, and for the ways in which the roles and responsibilities of accounting professionals will evolve going forward. Here are some of the points about these changes I try to get across to my students, and ways I have incorporated them into conversations and lessons in my own courses.

Accountants of the future will be expected to solve more complex and open-ended problems.

Problem-solving is something that clients and customers increasingly expect of accountants. One way I encourage students to develop this mindset is to have them take a headline news story that features technology and dig past the technological angle to understand the business implications. For instance, I might use a story about the libra cryptocurrency developments underway at Facebook and emphasize angles such as the calls for regulating Facebook as a financial services company or the development of numerous other stablecoin alternatives by incumbent players.

The key point in these conversations is to highlight the fact that no news story, piece of data, or market trend exists in a vacuum. Every single event generates and is influenced by any number of external forces, and that is what clients increasingly look to financial professionals to help them analyze.

Continuous reporting and real-time analytics are here to stay.

The shift toward continuous reporting and real-time analytics is not a new development or trend. However, it certainly seems to have been amplified as improved AI, automation, and robotics tools have entered the landscape. What educators need to remember is that while the tools used to perform continuous reporting may change or evolve, continuous reporting itself appears to be a phenomenon that is here to stay. In my classes, I emphasize that accountants will be doing less periodic reporting of data to a limited set of external users and more continuous reporting.

One way that I demonstrate why the shift toward continuous reporting is taking place is by assigning students a relatively high-profile, publicly traded organization and asking them to compare (1) how many days it has been since the company’s last financial filing with the SEC, and (2) the number of news articles focusing on the same company that appear on the first 10 pages of a Google search. Sometimes there are more articles covering the organization than days that have passed since the last filing! Although this is not a perfect comparison, it does illustrate the point that with so much information being produced daily, traditional periodic reporting simply cannot keep pace.

CPAs will be expected to be knowledgeable about technology.

As technologies previously labeled as emerging (such as blockchain, robotic process automation, and AI) become mainstream, clients and customers will increasingly expect CPAs to be able to explain what these tools do and mean. While it is not necessary for all accounting students to become computer programming experts, it is critical that we equip our students with the appropriate levels of information to be active participants in technology conversations.

From an educational perspective, I have used a few tactics to emphasize this point and provide students food for thought as to how they can do so. To begin with, I focus on the applications of the technology instead of the technical specifications.

Entire professions are built around mastering the technical aspects of various technology tools. CPAs, however, will be asked to play a different role. CPAs need to be able to connect the dots between the technical aspects of emerging technologies and their business applications.

One way I encourage students to build this mindset is through writing assignments, using questions that ask them to make the connections between technology and business. For example, they might respond to the following question:

Blockchain is becoming more mainstream and integrated at financial institutions. Will that accelerate margin compression or lead to higher-margin services for leading financial institutions?

This question helps drive students to analyze the financial services sector at large, as well as the potential impact of technology on the sector. I typically assign students to write on it for a grade and provide them with a rubric outlining the questions I want answered, which comparison I would like to see addressed, and what the ultimate goal of this paper should be in terms of conclusions or analysis. Importantly, though the assignment includes predefined questions and word count requirements, I tell students their opinion or analysis concluding the paper can either be pro-blockchain or more skeptical. Over the last two years the assignment has, by all feedback I have received, increased awareness of blockchain among accounting students.

Every classroom is different, and every educator will have different points that they wish to emphasize in a particular course, but I do hope that this article has raised the point that technology, in and of itself, is neither a good nor bad thing for accounting; it is simply a tool that can be leveraged to advance the profession. Educators can, however, help explain, educate, and demonstrate to students how these technologies will improve and change the professional landscape moving forward.

Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA, DBA, is an assistant professor at Lehman College in New York City and is serving as a Visiting Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research during 2019. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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