Is the Accountancy profession past its use by date?

Who can say what will happen in 2061, 50 years hence? Scientists seem 100% certain Halley’s Comet whispered ‘I’ll be back’ when it last passed by the earth in 1986, before most people were born. But will the Accountancy profession be here to welcome it?

Ask members of the profession, management of professional associations, academics, members of firms, accountants in business, clients. Everyone has an equal chance of predicting whether the profession will be in ascendency or terminal decline through entropic processes by 2061.

Kenneth MacNeal (Truth in Accounting, 1939) warned the profession not to become complacent or narrow in its focus and rather to respect the market and economic values otherwise it would disappear up its own standards, or IFRS.

As another academic accountant concerned for the future of the profession, the practitioners of the art of accounting, academic knowledge generators, student bodies and sound policy making, it is disappointing to see the lethargy associated with the movement of the accounting academic bodies towards engagement with the global problems upon which Halley’s Comet will undoubtedly gaze, and gaze again, and again. These academic bodies should be leading the profession to that essential future.

Instead, the vast majority of accounting academics are still behind the game on research that can make a difference to practice, to the important problems facing the world – water shortages, carbon emissions, excessive waste, exploitation of human frailties, unjustifiable narrowness of perspective on ecological and social ills, over consumption of resources.
Indeed, the current focus on metrics rewarding academics for pleasing other academics, rather than pleasing the purveyors of accounting services and the public interest, requires investigation at the most senior levels, to be advised by all in the profession defined in its broadest sense. Accounting academics are generally pushed by poor, negative political strategies inflicted by those with an eye on so-called quality academic research rather than impact on the profession, the clients of firms, on society, on the world.

In a world of social media where consumer choice knowledge is unlimited, goods and services accessible, but unaffordable to most, has the accountant stopped counting? Equity is a non-accounting notion. Age discrimination is divorced from the balance sheet. Child labour and exploitation of women is ‘not in my back yard’ but pushed into the back yards of other entities beyond current scope. The military-industrial complex is seen as a sustaining source of reward – revenues and cost, income – not destruction in the name of safety for the powerful. Unemployment and underemployment are outside the calculus of computation. Psychological illiteracy prevalent where reports are just for forms sake, for ticking the boxes while the fundamental environmental and societal problems burn stronger.

Accountants have the potential power of broad knowledge generation and application, of information dissemination, of thinking systematically about and contribution towards accounting input to resolving the large problems facing the world, the social and environmental as well as the economic, even though their reputation has been sullied on that score of late. But all branches of the profession need to be involved, the academics too, not just on their own local race run for points on the board with a management proferred incentive of dollars in the pocket when they reach the stars.

Transdisciplinary academic research is at the core of movements towards sustainability in order to address complex and multi-dimensional problems, such as integration of the social, environmental and economic. Accountants in academe and in practice are used to complex problems. However until there is concerted collaboration with stakeholders and the community, between researchers drawn from different disciplines, there will not be a reality check to the outpourings of academic accounting in order to drive a rethink of the foundations of sustainable economic performance of the clients of professional firms even by the time that Halley’s Comet returns.

For further information about the transdisciplinary turn in accounting and ongoing research in the Centre of Accounting, Governance and Sustainability, School of Commerce, UniSA contact either Roger Burritt at roger.burritt@unisa.edu.au or Joanne Tingey-Holyoak at Joanne.Tingey@unisa.edu.au

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3 comments

  1. There’s probably a greater chance of the comet not returning than the probability of the cooperation you describe. As a professional you’ve known a lot of accountants. Would you say adaptability is one of the traits incorporated into their realities?

  2. I can only speak for myself (being 32 y.o.) but I’m on the verge of leaving the profession because of its inability to change/adapt/progress compared with my non-accounting peers. Social media only deepens contrast. We do glorify the past and fear the future.

    1. Hi Michael
      I am sure you have some good practical ideas as to how the profession might be able to redeem itself in your eyes. Would you like to share them?
      All the best, Roger

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