As recently as the early 1990s, aspiring certified public accountants had only a pencil, paper and knowledge in which to draw from to take the CPA exam.
Excel spreadsheets came next. While Excel isn’t going away anytime soon, many accountants are finding the familiar software they know is being replaced with advanced analytics tools designed for the digital age.
“Accountants can no longer, in many cases, throw data into a spreadsheet alone to make a business computation,” according to Dr. Jack Cathey, director for the Master of Accountancy (MACC) program and an associate professor of accounting for UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business. “Instead, they need to be able to use a vast amount of data and advanced tools to ask better questions which will alter decisions – decisions informed by data.”
Information is coming at us in greater amounts, faster and with more variety. Like all aspects of business, the digital transformation is impacting the accounting profession.
Accountants today are increasingly using new visualization tools such as Alteryx to extract and transform data and Tableau to visualize and tell stories with data. Employers expect graduates to have the knowledge to replace an Excel bar chart with a complex, visually interesting and interactive dashboard based on large amounts of live data.
Tools needed by today’s accounting workforce include “data wrangling” visualization and robotic process automation (RPA). Alteryx, which is incorporated in several Belk College undergraduate and graduate accounting courses, allows users to work at scale and at a higher volume than Excel and takes the manual process out of the equation.
Visualization enables the person to tell a story with pictures.
Cathey said older methods are not discarded but are supplemented by new tools. He teaches an analytics course that uses Excel, SQL, Alteryx and Tableau and which application for certain tasks.
A recent study from A.T. Kearney and Arvato found that RPA will transform businesses in all sectors and particularly accounting departments. Experts project that RPA will reduce personnel requirements by 28 to 41% within the next five years, allowing team members to spend time on more and revenue generating activities, increasing efficiency.
In the age of big data, information and visuals need to work together, combining great analysis with great storytelling. In the future, experts predict that routine accounting tasks will become automated and replaced with data wrangling tools or software using robotic process automation.
What else does the future hold for accounting? One change is certain: the CPA exam. The CPA Evolution project will include a new version of the exam in 2024 that incorporates data for the first time as one of four core competencies. Visualization may be the next addition.
“Data locked in the mind or spreadsheet of an accountant is worthless,” Cathey said. “It has to be in the hands of decision makers. It is a very exciting time to be an accountant with new tools and automation.”
Answering Questions in Real Time
Understanding data also has benefitted Belk College accounting alumni as they have pivoted into less traditional fields, such as marketing, education, customer goods, service industries and sports.
The pandemic has changed how Leigh Goller ’93 works.
Goller is the chief audit and compliance officer for Duke University and Health System and a member of the Turner School Advisory Board. The self-admitted “people person” gets energy from working face to face with her team and with her colleagues across Duke, but has learned to go with the Zoom flow.
“The pandemic has accelerated the use of technology,” Goller said. “We are less reliant on paper, meetings are more efficient and, as a result, are able to do some of our work better.”
Goller spoke about the changes in the profession over her career.
"A variety of data mining and visualization tools allows us to filter and answer questions in real time,” she said. “The real innovation is when we can use these tools to answer the ‘why‘ in addition to knowing the ’what.’ We have come a long way in this field. The use of technology over my career has made my work more interesting and valuable, as well as more fun.”
Goller likes what Belk College MACC students are learning in the classroom, which translates into better employees.
“I look for creative thinkers in both communication and application,” she said. “The business world can’t operate in traditional silos. We have to be more collaborative. The Belk College has led the way with an interdisciplinary approach to education. This investment in students is really adding value in the workplace and improving the way we do business.”
"The Belk College has led the way with an interdisciplinary approach to education. This investment in students is really adding value in the workplace and improving the way we do business.”
– Leigh Goller '93, chief audit and compliance officer for Duke University and Health System
A Changing Workplace
Alex Burris ‘91, the senior vice president of technology at Lennar Multifamily Communities (LMC), remembers the early days of his auditing career when he was flying to see clients and slogging trunks full of workpapers through the airport.
He also recalled working on assignments with physical documents in Professor Cathey’s Accounting Information Systems class to understand how all the transactions fit together.
To meet his career interests, Burris doubled majored in accounting and management information systems.
“I quickly transitioned from audit to IT after I graduated,” Burris said. As an accountant with IT skills, he earned the moniker “the computer guy.”
Burris leveraged his experience to help a client go public and later became chief information officer.
“Keeping systems secure is no longer solely an IT responsibility but is now integrated in all business disciplines, including accounting,” he said. “I think savvy accounting students will understand the impact of security, risk and compliance as well.”
Burris keeps his skills sharp with continuing education. His favorite continuing professional development course is Cathey’s Technology Update.
“It has a dedicated following,” Burris said. “It brings home the continuing camaraderie that is felt among graduates, a popular instructor, and the desire to excel in the changing accounting landscape.”
Chris Summer ’03, ’04 MACC works as a managing director at Grant Thornton, LLP, in the international tax division. Summer said the changes in the workplace are evident from sole proprietorships to large corporations like those served by Grant Thornton.
Much of the transformation can be traced to the accelerated changes in the 2017 tax law documents.
“We started seeing a push to use technologies during that time,” Summer said. “These software tools help us to scale faster and do more computations quicker. Excel is still used but it is more customized for specific qualifications.”
Summer said his favorite tax class was Tax Research taught by Howard Godfrey, professor of accounting. He also writes tax articles for Grant Thornton, hosts webcasts and has taught online courses for the AICA (American Institute for Certified Accountants).
The Belk College’s nationally ranked Master of Accountancy (MACC) program, accredited by AACSB International, provides students with the skills they need to thrive in the profession.
Green and Gold Drive Business
The Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte has been driving business for more than 50 years. Established in 1970, the college offers outstanding business education programs at the undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and executive levels. The Belk College is one of the Carolinas’ largest business schools, with more than 4,600 students, over 100 full-time faculty, and more than 33,000 alumni. Accredited by AACSB International, the college is committed to building strong partnerships in the greater Charlotte region and beyond as North Carolina's urban research business school. Learn more about how the Belk College is driving business at belkcollege.charlotte.edu, and on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.