Should accountancy qualifications incorporate more technology?

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Computer-based examinations are becoming the norm in accountancy, but is there enough practical tech training to keep up with changes in the industry? Sooraj Shah investigates.

Much of the onus of learning tech-specific skills is placed on both prospective and existing accountants. The idea is that they have to learn on the job or in their own time, but there could be a case for those who setting accountancy examinations and courses to place a greater significance on technology to help accountants at an earlier stage.

Recent research from Xero found that 83% of accountants now think an understanding of technology is as important as their understanding of accountancy.

However, Xero’s director, partner Damon Anderson suggested that today’s training courses fail to incorporate enough of the technology ecosystem and platform of tools that are now second nature to so many accountants.

This is because the qualifications primarily focus on the principals and processes behind the legislation and accounting techniques, said Sion Lewis, CEO of IRIS Accountancy Solutions.

“While these are still required, the majority of the ‘soft-skill’ and technology advancements required in the profession today are not focused upon, despite their clear importance,” he said.

What should be included?

So what should be included in accounting qualifications to make accountants more tech-savvy from the get-go?

According to Dean McGlone, director at finance automation company V1, there could be more of a focus on tech processes, particularly during modules for Accountancy in Business such as Procure to Pay.

“A module on the role of technology in accounting would be hugely beneficial too, and training accountants to focus on answering ‘what if’ type questions will help businesses make better decisions. These questions will likely need knowledge of advanced and predictive analytics technologies, for example, to help answer them,” said McGlone.

Darren Cran, UK MD of AccountsIQ, suggested that accountants need to be able to practice, see examples and road test systems and understand the transaction workflow of capture, approval, code, reporting and reconciliation.

Certain colleges, such as University College Dublin (UCD) have introduced a practical module in college – this is pre-accountancy training that gives students an online tutorial. The college uses a version of AccountsIQ software for students to use to produce a set of books and then do an online test.

This is something that is still lacking in the main accounting qualifications, however, including at degree level.

“At the moment, accountants learn about technology on the job, their degree doesn’t really teach them about systems, instead they learn about how to analyse outcomes but they’re not taught how the systems work,” Cran explained.

Need for basic technical knowledge reduced

But while there is clearly a need for some more attention given to technology in accounting courses, Laura Goodband, a senior accountant at inniAccounts with both ACCA and AAT qualifications, is concerned that there should not be too much technology incorporated into qualifications as the basic technical knowledge necessary for accountancy may be reduced.

“Although traditional data entry is rapidly disappearing thanks to technological advances, the role of accountants and their expertise is still very much needed - technology can’t replace some areas of decision making. Only once you’ve mastered the basics can you then understand how technology can help you perform your role or improve your performance,” she said.

Could the exams themselves be more ‘digital’?

Nikki Elliot, head of finance at The Eventa Group, said that she qualified in 2015 having started her studies in 2008. But that the modules she sat then were “extremely manual” and seemed “archaic”. This included sitting an exam with graph paper drawing lines of best fit.

“In the ‘real business world’ this would be performed by software so it would be good to incorporate this into studies or exams to see how it is really done – hence cementing the understanding n real-terms,” she said.

Many of the accounting qualifications are, however, moving towards computer-based exams, and Goodband believes that all such exams should be computer-based, as long as this doesn’t hinder the technical and fundamental knowledge of trainee accountants.

“For instance, when I completed my professional qualification all of the exams were completed manually and a good proportion of the time spent during these exams was drawing up templates and planning the layout of your answer,” she said.

“Today, accounting software performs this function and we no longer need to prepare things manually. However, my concern is that if this element is taken out of accounting exams then trainees may never fully understand or appreciate the underlying fundamentals of the profession. There has to be a balance if we are to produce rounded professionals,” she added. 

About Sooraj Shah

Sooraj Shah

Sooraj is a freelance technology journalist covering all things IT. 

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01st Dec 2017 07:29

This is a great discussion. The answer is yes. I have been doing talks at a school recently to bridge the gap between exams , the real world and software it shocks me how little people studying accounts know about software.

I feel like we have gone backwards on digital and software training in general. I come from Dublin and training on software was part of our IT training where I studied IATI .

Years ago I wrote quite a bit about Sage L50 on here and it was clear so many did not know how to use the software to its full capacity. So yes you can learn on the job but you still can miss loads of a software capability.

How many people use Xero to its full capacaity. Their training and videos are excellent but why can’t school students and people studying have access. This would be so productive for the UK .

It is so bad now with people not having the software skills in Accountancy it is like a plumber been thought the theory of Plumbling but never doing the training with a sink ,toilet and all the tools needed.

I feel really strongly about this and would be happy to discuss with any software company . Why can’t pupils and people studying do a accreditation on the software. Xero mentioned in their conference they were going to work with schools so I would love to here more.

So yes more software training should be involved.

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01st Dec 2017 09:18

100% yes - I also do work with schools and there is this perception that if you are good at maths then one of the clear career options is to be an accountant and that's all very good but I then ask them, how are your IT skills as they are just as essential, especially with the growing amount of software accounting firms are using these days.

The sooner the AAT can introduce a cloud accounting software into it's syllabus the better as it will without a doubt make these candidates more attractive to firms, knowing how to navigate around at least one cloud accounting software platform.

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01st Dec 2017 10:43

Its a bit like passing your driving test. You learn far more driving solo after you passed than you ever did doing the actual training. When I qualified, virtually every issue I had to handle in my first few years was not covered by the syllabus. Obviously the basic framework was in place, but taking this basic knowledge to the next level was entirely a solo effort and I suspect this is the case for virtually every accountant.

The answer to the question is 'yes'. There should be more technology in the syllabuses, but the content will always lag behind because the speed of change is faster than the institutes can handle.

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01st Dec 2017 10:56

I am pretty happy to retrain on IT, but with one big exception: "Not on Sage" please.

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to Cantona1
01st Dec 2017 19:02

Cantona1 wrote:

I am pretty happy to retrain on IT, but with one big exception: "Not on Sage" please.

That's the killer isn't it? They won't be offering a wide range of systems, so it'll end up being the one who is "most persuasive" who gets the contract and there's obviously massive marketing benefits from getting the next generation of trainees to use your software so you'd be doing whatever you could to persuade the colleges/bodies to use yours, whether that's boxes at Ascot, donations to their favourite charities, brown envelopes or whatever. I would worry that instead of the "best" software chosen, it would be the one with the biggest marketing budget.

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01st Dec 2017 12:17

Great article, and surely a resounding "Yes".

The balance will still have to be about learning on which technology, and while cloud is the future, that doesn't mean that one particular vendor should predominate (again).

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01st Dec 2017 19:07

I think the entire education system is way behind the times, not just professional bodies, but schools too. At my son's school, they actually stopped teaching any IT at all - they used to do the ECDL but dropped it as they claim it is irrelevant in the modern world. So that's a secondary school that do no formal IT training/education at all.

As for professional bodies, I did my ACCA exams in the June, just after capital transfer tax had been abolished and replaced by inheritance tax. We spent the year from September in College studying a tax we knew was obsolete and that we'd never use in practice, because the old CTT was still on the syllabus, not the new IHT. And yes, come June, we got a huge question on obsolete CTT. I think at the very least, they should have suspended the question and section of the syllabus and put in a replacement question on something current, such as a second question on CT/IT or a bigger question of CGT.

I'm not convinced modern education is actually for workplace skills at all - seems more a matter of examining general academic ability, whilst you learn about the real stuff in your job.

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By JD
02nd Dec 2017 12:43

There seems to be a real gap between the IT profession (who are in the main still focused on traditional servers, networks and related support) and our own, who know that data needs to managed, that there are systems which will automate the process, but we don't quite know how to put everything that is on offer, into a fully functioning digital system. In reality we are not IT professionals and far to busy with the day job. Having been on the recruitment trail, it seems almost impossible to find anybody that properly understands how to get the most out of Xero / QBO and the like.

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02nd Dec 2017 14:33

Great article to start the debate. The debate is long overdue.

But to suggest that accountants need to train in IT is misguided. Accountants and IT bods must both be fluent in ITIL (see below), but even this is only part of the solution.

The equally urgent solution is to train IT people to do an accountant's job, or have a law that mandates senior program developers to test their own software on an old desktop to which is connected NO mouse (on pain of 40 years of hard labour, to reflect the pain they inflict on the userbase). That'll get software re-designed so that it is useable by power users, effectively abolishing the mouse. This will immediately improve productivity perhaps fourfold, and thereby increase capacity in admin departments.

My number one problem being an accountant in a SME is that I need to re-key the same data from the same document up to six times, because there is other way of one system reliably feeding data to another.

We have to do this to control/authorise the data manually before it goes anywhere near the ledger system. In effect, the ledger system has become a dead-end of the book-keeping process. Only the book-keeper can type in data and only the book-keeper can extract data. And the extaction process is just as painful - time-wasting - as the input process.

Inputting the data into a ledger system is painful, because of atrocious design of dialogue boxes. Hence the test by developers to use their own software with no mouse. And the story worsens!

Where the importing of data is possible, in too many cases, the import service by-passes the business logic behind the user interface dialogue boxes. This means that you need to import WAY MORE than the user would simply type, so you'd need a way in Excel (of course) to replicate the business logic of the dialogue box prior to importing the data.

It's almost a conspiracy by the IT sector to waste as much time as possible of its userbase!

Connecting a legacy ledger system to anything cloudy is practically impossible. Can anybody offer me proof-in-operation otherwise?

Can cloudy systems can properly collaborate? I doubt it. All software vendors would need to use compatible API calls. All vendors. That means vendors of systems relating to ledgers, banks, CRM, procurement, HRM, external auditors, external financial reporting, customer statement-of-account system, Google Drive, Zoho Office, Microsoft 365, AND ALSO connectors to servers on private VLANs running legacy software. In the real world, each vendor designs their own API for their own proprietary database structure. So each vendor re-invents the triangular API wheel.

So a network of APIs cannot reliably transmit the right data, to the right system at the right time, with the right authorisation, for the right purpose. You need to be a very large company with the resources to waste in tying, re-tying and constantly fiddling with a delicate network of API calls, ready to detect the slightest change that any vendor will arrogantly pull at the last minute, crashing the whole API system down.

To be workable - and to protect software vendors from being accused of operating a cartel - we need an ISO standard definition of a financial management system from which an API could be designed. Is there one? No. Consequentially, every IT outfit re-invents its own triangular API wheel.

Just how bad is this problem? Well, put it this way: HSBCnet doesn't import CSV files as payment batches. It's stunningly unbelievable. But this is typical of the poor designs that the IT sector have foisted on accountants/book-keepers. It must be a conspiracy! Every step forward has been accompanied by two steps backward.

I remain open-minded on artificial intelligence as a book-keeping tool, but knowing how hard is it to train a graduate about how to code transactions, I see no medium-term future for artificial intelligence in a corporation's management information system. Book-keeping for fiscal purposes is probably as complex as artificial intelligence will ever achieve in my lifetime.

To get to an ISO definition for a financial management API, we first need to be able to verbalise the problem. And for that, both IT bods and accountants need to be fluent in the Information Technology Infrastruture Library (ITIL v3). If you want to train accountants about anything IT-related, start with ITIL. There is no useful alternative.

If you want to fiddle with accountancy exams, simply make the ITIL Foundation Course a mandatory component of the first year's accounting exams.

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By DJKL
02nd Dec 2017 16:57

I think one has to be very careful merely teaching the software, any such tuition is inherently weakened by the next thing, tech re accountancy appears these days to be more changing the approach to the processes undertaken so an understanding of the interfaces used/underlying principles is likely, long term, more valuable than say just being able to use X or Y software.

A good CS degree approaches CS say looking at the underlying rather than a particular language, someone working in the CS industry (my son) knows that during his working life he will use a multitude of languages, in fact they grow exponentially over time (he was using about 12 when he graduated, I expect it is a few more these days as he spent three years working for a multinational dealing with both new software development and legacy system support and now works as a front end developer re bank software)

A course that merely focused on the current languages in vogue (like accountants merely learning the current software) is likely doomed to long term failure, that is why good CS courses are far broader, titles like say HCI rather than using X programme re HCI solutions.

ICAS is the 1980s had a Part 1 course called something like "Data Processing", cannot remember the exact name more that it was pretty dry, this taught and examined how systems worked, stored data, interfaced, albeit any one year course (taught in study blocks) is only going to scratch the surface.

The fun part was flow charting systems (with a different plastic template from that used for accounting systems flowcharting), accountants love pretty schematics, and some basic understanding was gained re terms used, ram, rom, dumps, hard drives etc. (though have forgotten most of them since) We even got taught a little DOS and use of some of the commands.

Something that taught how systems work in broad terms, how APIs /Comms work, elements re system security, backup processes and what sorts of things are possible and why they are possible, might be more valuable, we will likely be choosing systems not just for our own business but also will be involved with client decisions, understanding what is currently possible, what may become possible, an overview, plus understanding terminology used would in my opinion be of longer term value than merely being tested on using X software.

I am pretty low tech myself, I do not understand the whys/ limitations, but over 32 years I have never come across accounting or tax software I could not teach myself to use, learning to use software is not the issue, learning what sort of software can have client specific adds on, augments, and why it can and why it cannot is surely a far more valuable skillset.

And frankly all schoolchildren already have a basic IT useage toolkit, the Scottish system even gives an non examined award of same on their certificates (my kids got theirs awarded by end of second year, as do most) they have an instinctive understanding of making devices communicate- linking a PC to a TV, wireless setup etc, etc, I am a firm believer that every person over say 50 should have a younger IT guru on call.

Core basic Excel, Word, Publisher and Database use is taught, they certainly type far faster than I do and by the time they pop out of university they can present and format extensive documents with an art that confounds older individuals like myself.

My daughters dissertation was 20,000 words of cited and footnoted beauty with embedded charts, pictures, all the basic IT skills, and that was picked up by her despite dropping IT after second year at school.

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03rd Dec 2017 11:04

May be worth checking out the upcoming changes to ICAEW syl

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to bookmarklee
03rd Dec 2017 15:47

Hi Mark. Have they finally got round to replacing some of the minority specialisms (like tax) with something universally useful to accountants, such as how not to waste half your working life through using spreadsheets badly?

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03rd Dec 2017 16:00

Hi Sooraj

I think an extremely valuable piece of freelance journalism would be to conduct a comparative analysis of how IT is covered in each accountancy professional body’s qualification process. Mind you, it would be a substantial project. You’d need to go beyond the examination syllabus and look at workplace experience requirements and the actual experience of a representative selection of newly-qualified members.

I think the most interesting question might be, for each qualification, how little could someone know about IT and still qualify.

As an Office software trainer I do have a vested interest, but, given how much the profession uses and misuses spreadsheets, it would be nice if such a study covered this area specifically. Perhaps it might help solve Britain’s (lack of) productivity conundrum.

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04th Dec 2017 09:13

A very interesting article but my answer has to be no.
There was a very useful bit of news on sky this morning about how taxi drivers brain (while they are working) is buzzing, then when they retire, use satnav or stop doing taxi work, the brain shrivels. So what do we teach, say history, in school. If you forget a date "google" it. The Accountancy exams teach Accountancy and there is enough to think about without having to do IT.
Normally you don't pass your exams and start a business so you are in a practice where you put your theory into practice, and as Ken says, "you learn about the real stuff in your job. Some might say I'm behind the times but I say we are moving forward far too quick for our own good.

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14th Nov 2018 19:03

This is a great discussion. The answer is yes. I have been doing talks at a school recently to bridge the gap between exams , kingroot download the real world and software it shocks me how little people studying accounts know about software.

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