The Data-Analyst Accountant

The age of technology is upon us! From artificial intelligence (AI) to blockchain and robotic process automation (RPA), the onward march of technology is exerting a huge transformational effect. Accountants are left scratching their heads as they wonder how their profession will shape up in the years to come.

So, how does a management accountant ensure a successful future? Unsurprisingly, the answer lies in data – the mounds of it that keep piling up with companies of all types. This data must first be collected, cleaned, and organized, after which it will be mined to extract useful strategic insights. The future is going to be different, and these requirements will bring on many challenges for accountants.

What types of roles will organizations need?

There will be two major roles. One is the data scientist, who is someone combining analytics with technical skills. The person must know how to program as well as to manage large data sets and statistical operations, as he or she will spearhead the practical implementation of machine learning (ML) at the firm. He or she will also work on developing advisory and audit, as well as visualizing, presenting, and taking care of other actions to communicate the data. Given the interdependence of team members, the ability to work well in a team is of the essence.

The other role is of a big data engineer. This person needs to possess programming knowledge and will take care of data transformation, collection, and loading. The big data engineer works with:

  • Big data software such as Apache Hadoop made by IBM
  • SPSS, an analytical software product made by IBM
  • MATLAB, a programming language for working with data, developed by MathWorks

With one role mapping out the process to be followed and the other working with the actual data, firms should be future-ready in terms of the services they can provide.

How important is knowledge of data for an accountant?

An accountant is not likely to be an expert at working with data science and accounting rules. The important part, though, is that he or she must be able to communicate the results to a client.

It would be unrealistic to expect the accountant to be a “purple unicorn” i.e. someone who has all the skills in all the areas. The team as a whole should possess the full skillset, and management accountants must at least meet the baseline so they can work well with the team. Collaborative and technical team skills are of invaluable help to the management accountant in analyzing and communicating results. Clearly, the skill requirement needs a relook.

A person majoring in accounting needs strong knowledge of math or computer science, as that helps him or her think logically and in code. A good online course could bring a useful background in computer science to the portfolio of a management accountant.

Building up the skillset will also require including computer science and data analytics in accounting curricula. These two disciplines are often offered as minors, but given their importance in the future, it might be better to offer them as core components or majors in a course.

Often, firms get around the problem by bringing in data analysts and data scientists who are then tutored in the basics of accounting. It becomes a matter of prioritization: either technical skills come first and accounting second, or the other way around.

In the future, what will accounting firms look for?

Ethical and technical skills will be the first requirement. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), there are several disclosure, reporting, and review requirements, which are non-negotiable. Then comes the capability to leverage knowledge and reasoning to tackle problematic situations. Along with this, firms require the ability to create solutions for existing problems as well as to generate new solutions and ideas. There is also a need for basic awareness of common data science issues and software applications, enough to knowledgeably understand and question the process. Along with this, he or she must have a vision for the future, to contribute to the organization. Finally, he or she must have the experience of working with clients, as it gives knowledge that can be leveraged to offer value to the business.