Prepare accounting students for working with data analytics

By Sarah Ovaska-Few

Data analytics is poised to change everything in accounting, including how it's taught.

Many graduates entering the profession will be expected to have the standard level of accounting knowledge, as well as the ability to manage new artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and conduct advanced analytics, said Carol Hughes, CPA, who teaches accounting at the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina.

At the very least, new graduates will need to be comfortable with advanced technologies, as even basic software programs like Excel and QuickBooks incorporate AI capabilities, said Hughes, who also teaches undergraduate level classes at the University of North Carolina–Asheville. 

Major firms are reaching out directly to accounting schools to emphasize the need for data analytics skills. KPMG has collaborated with Villanova's School of Business and eight other universities to create KPMG Master of Accounting with Data and Analytics programs at the schools.

"The demand is huge," said David Stout, Ph.D., the faculty director of Villanova University's master of accounting program, about the need for CPAs with advanced analytic skills.

In an April 2017 survey by Forbes Insight and KPMG, 26% of financial executives said advanced technologies would become essential to financial reporting and auditing in the next two years, while a further 53% viewed advanced technology skills as becoming a "must have" in three to five years.

That means recent accounting graduates who can navigate advanced analytics will be in high demand.

"Those who are skilled in advanced software and data analytics will have a decided advantage in the job market," Hughes said.

However, teaching resources have yet to catch up with the technology accounting students need to learn. As Hughes put it, "There's not a lot of textbooks out there dealing specifically with accounting and data analytics." That means faculty who want to incorporate more technology into their accounting classes are largely on their own.

It can be difficult to give students at the associate or undergraduate level everything they need to be comfortable with data analytics, Stout said. "It's almost impossible to deliver in a very substantial way these integrated competencies at the undergraduate level," he observed.

But undergraduate accounting programs can still give students enough exposure that they'll be able to seek out on-the-job training, or progress to advanced degrees to get the detailed data analytics background that employers are looking for.

Here are some ways schools can help accounting students become more comfortable with data analytics and prepare them for technological changes in the profession:

Teach critical thinking. There's a reason soft skills like communication and critical thinking always come up as skills needed to survive in the workplaces of tomorrow.

Hughes said she incorporates critical thinking challenges into her classes, encouraging students to go beyond the basics to consider larger questions about how to advise business clients by using powerful technology tools.

In one of her upper-level courses, for instance, she pulls open-source data from a local governmental agency and has students sort through and analyze it.

Critical thinking skills come into play because students need to discern what data is helpful and what isn't. Hughes has found data sets on websites like data.gov and bls.gov, and her students use Excel to analyze and sift through questions about economic environments and labor markets. She hopes to have students use the data analytics platform Tableau in future projects.

Listen to practitioners. Stout and Hughes recommended reaching out to accounting firms to learn what the real needs in the workplace are. If your school has an advisory committee or other opportunity to connect with practitioners, ask them for feedback about what technologies they use and what skills they are expecting to see in recent graduates. 

You can also create opportunities for students to hear from working professionals, such as having your class visit firms to observe various working environments and invite speakers to talk with classes about workplace expectations, Hughes said. 

Students are more apt to listen to working professionals than their professors about how essential technology and management skills are in the workplace, Stout said.

Go beyond Excel. Excel is still necessary, but students will need exposure to other advanced computer programs and have the ability to learn new ones quickly.

To build students' ability to work with different software, faculty can incorporate advanced data analytics into regular classwork, and encourage students to take technology-based electives that will give them an edge when they enter the workforce.

At the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, Dan O'Leary, CPA, Ph.D., dives into multiple programs in his advanced data analytics accounting program for graduate students.

At USC's undergraduate program, students will be exposed to analytics as well, though not at levels as in-depth as the graduate-level classes, he said. For the 2017–2018 school year, undergraduates will be exposed to enterprise resource planning systems, visualization tools like Tableau, and audit tools like ACL.

His graduate-level students work with programs like NetSuite, SAS's statistical software program JMP, Microsoft Power BI, and even IBM's artificial intelligence tool Watson. He helps walk his students through the underlying infrastructures so they can learn to evaluate technologies critically and not follow the programs blindly.

"It's not just some standalone technology that they learn how to do," he said. "They understand what's going on with this data."

That allows students to recognize shortcomings in different software, and they leave with the ability to evaluate programs critically. 

Encourage students to see the bigger picture behind the technology. Knowing how to use technology is vital, but even more important is the ability to apply it in a business context. Accountants who have the contextual knowledge of complicated issues and the ability to discuss it thoughtfully with colleagues and clients will excel in work settings, O'Leary said.

"The one thing you can't get out of computer is a lot of good discussion," he noted. The workplace requires "your ability to communicate in context."

To emphasize how key discussion is, O'Leary makes class participation 15% of the grade in his classes. His students are expected to participate in discussions about the various advantages and shortcomings of technologies the group explores, as well as to share their thoughts on the various case studies used in class.

With plenty of technological change on the horizon, academics will need to be as flexible as the future accountants they're tasked with training.

"Change is a good thing," Hughes said. "It's just coming more rapidly than what we're accustomed to seeing."

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.

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