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  • Our Profession at a Crossroads


    by Tom Hanlon
    4 February 2013

    “We have a lot of things going on in our profession. We’re at a point of unprecedented change,” Russ Wieman told a packed audience at a recent Department of Accountancy Lyceum in Deloitte Auditorium. “I spoke five years ago at a lyceum, and I thought the change we were facing then was unprecedented, but that change was not as unparalleled as it is now. We are at a tipping point.”

    Wieman, CFO for Grant Thornton, LLP, identified seven factors shaping the accountancy profession:
    •    Globalization
    •    Regulatory environment
    •    Relevancy
    •    Technology
    •    Generational change
    •    Broader business skills
    •    Talent pipeline

    Globalization: Here to stay
    “When I started in the profession, I didn’t really know what a global operation was,” Wieman said. “Today, every client we serve has some exposure to globalization.”

    A big issue US accountancy firms face, he said, is whether the US will become an IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards) nation, joining the 100+ countries that require or permit IFRS reporting. “It provides a common global language for business affairs so that company accounts are understandable and comparable across boundaries,” he said.

    Clients, he added, don’t really care – they just want top quality service. And globalization is intricately woven into that service, he said. “Everything we do in the US – our brand promise, our market focus, what we do in public policy, our training, how we develop our professionals, extends globally. It is clear that globalization is here to stay. As you enter the profession, as you learn what it’s like to be global, you’ll be much better off.”

    Regulatory environment: Difficult challenge
    “The regulatory environment is probably one of the most difficult things we have going for us in the profession,” Wieman said. “I can tell you that we’re struggling with being a regulated industry  and that comes from being independent for such a long time. The intensity of  the regulations and standards has not been seen in the history of the profession. If you look at the standards that have come out, they’re complex and voluminous. Nobody ever takes anything away; we never do anything less than before. What was good yesterday isn’t necessarily good today.”

    Relevancy: People want more financial information
    Wieman also spoke to the relevancy of financial statements. “It’s clear that people want more information [in terms of financial statements for companies],” he said. “What’s not so clear is how the accounting profession fits into that.”

    He said that over the last two years, the number of the nation’s firms with failed audits have gone from 25 percent to 45 or 50 percent. Those figures, he said, were troubling  but he added, “I will say that none of these problems are unsolvable.”

    Technology: Biggest change in the profession
    The increased capabilities of technology represents the greatest change in the profession that he has experienced.

    “Technology has brought about a great change in how we operate,” he said, pointing to the “slicing and dicing” of  data as  an example.

    “Today’s technology is clearly changing how we serve  our clients,” he added. “Technology changes how we work and makes us more transparent. It also changes what clients expect of us.”

    Generational change: “You are profoundly different”
    Another factor shaping the profession is the rise of a new generation of accountants. This generational change, Wieman said, “is a big change. You are profoundly different than any other generation that came before you.”

    Part of that difference, he noted, was this generation’s great aptitude for technology. “You challenge us in a good way,” he said. “You grew up with videos, with your hands on computers, with texting and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. None of those existed that long ago, and now we need to react to them or we’ll be left in the dust.”

    Broader business skills and talent pipeline
    “Our profession can no longer rely on classic training,” Wieman said. “We have to be able to think about causal relationships, interrelationships, what makes things happen. And we need to value and attract intellectually curious minds. There’s a great need for critical thinkers in our profession.”

    In addition, Wieman said, there is an insufficient entry-level labor pool for the profession. “Competition for students is more intense than ever before. We need to increase our diversity in the talent pipeline. There are not enough people to get it done.”

    The profession’s response to these challenges
    Wieman outlined three keys to improve the quality and vitality of the profession:
    •    Through global education and awareness
    •    Through a talent pipeline expansion
    •    Through broader business skills

    “We have to go global in our education,” he said. To that end, he spoke of the importance of international secondments, where employees are transferred to other countries to work. “Secondments have a lot of benefits. We have to get our people out to where our clients are, and we need to understand international standards, issues and cultures.”

    Regarding the talent pipeline, Wieman said the profession needs to be made more attractive to intellectually curious students, and it needs to push for more diversity and a global talent pool.

    “We have to identify more effective strategies to diversify, and that starts here on college campuses,” he said.

    “Relying on you to help us”
    To meet the challenges he outlined, Wieman said, “It will take heightened and significant collaboration. Your challenge is to embrace the change the profession is facing. To be successful, you are going to have to be part of the solution.”

    Of the unprecedented change facing the profession, Wieman said, “Change is good. We will get there. We will adapt, as we have adapted in the past.

    “However, we have to rely on you, the next generation, to help us. So I ask you to join us in this journey of change, to play a primary role as we move forward.”

    UIUC College of Business Department of Accountancy