Educating The 21st Century Accountant

Accounting, as a profession, is as iconic of the middle class as it could be. Its making had all the classical elements of emergence of a profession: Granting of a monopoly of a practise to a set of people competent in a standard of practise who forswore to adhere to a code of conduct. Becoming an Accountant was a task that demanded commitment and competence, and being one meant a prospect of lifelong employment, respectable income and a middling rank in the society. Alongside Medicine, Teaching, and Engineering, Accounting has been one of the pillars that held the Middle Class economy.

However, its very strengths may be turning into disadvantages at this point of time in the 21st century. The high stakes assessment that qualified the Accountants, like all high stakes assessments, focused minds and skills on mastering the system, rather than serving the wider world. The standards of practise evolved into rules, something that a programmed machine could do, at least for the most part. And, the socially contracted code of practise came under heavy pressure as the incentives were skewed - as in most other professions - with the emergence of specialised languages and practises that distanced the profession from everyday life, and somewhat emphasised its commercial imperatives at the expense of its social role.

So, implausible as it may sound, Accounting is facing a crisis in the 21st century. Its professional credibility is in question, its tasks are being automated, its deficiencies in communicating in common language are being highlighted. However, there is something yet more profound that is really testing the profession: Its inability to think synthetically, rather than the analytical capabilities that was the hallmark of the profession, is being viewed as a major handicap. This is indeed because at this moment in time, a time of great social and technological change, the risks most businesses have are strategic, something that most accountants are blind to, competent as they are in spotting and dealing with financial risks. From the high pedestal of being designers of the commercial world, today's Accountants face the prospect of being demoted to mere technicians, fighting to keep their jobs secure from encroachment of automation and off-shoring, something unwinnable.

However, this is a perfect moment, because of these challenges, to reimagine the profession. The 21st Century Accountant will be very unlike the 20th Century one, more in the front-line of business than at the back-office, more of a strategic visionary than the financial plumber, people savvy rather than wary of relationships and conversations, creative and imaginative rather than rule bound, and a master rather than a slave of information technology. This means change everywhere: That high stakes assessment must accompany high engagement practise, working with other people must go alongside working with numbers, the view of the business must transcend the imperatives of compliance to strategic sustainability and standards of practise must be redefined as one of commitment and care, one that prescribes a more wholesome view of costs and responsibilities. 

My current work involves creating a new model of educating and preparing this 21st Century Accountant. The model would enshrine communication and collaboration at its heart, assess through high engagement practise, take a holistic view of the competence to include a forward-looking approach to business and its prospects and integrate technology as an enabler of imagination.  This would take a broad view of the profession, and involve Professional Bodies, Technology Providers, Accounting Organisations and Client Businesses, the whole ecosystem of the profession, across countries and industries. This would be built around global standards and best practises, respect the current regulatory frameworks and commitments of the profession, and yet, will take a long view of competences and aim at not just producing qualified accountants but employable ones who can reimagine their roles and lead their employers into redefining the profession.

In doing this, we are exploring a template for educating all 21st century professionals, as the powers of the State, the granter of monopolies, changes - and indeed, societies become more sceptical about experts and their cosy arrangements. We hope that this new model of professional education will prepare professionals to be more responsive, imaginative and entrepreneurial, who will take charge and be able to define the opportunities and obligations in step with time.


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