Students today know much more about technology than their counterparts a generation ago. The advances in technology over the past two decades have forced them to develop new skills and adapt. Therefore, the ever-changing technological educators and trainers must also continually adapt their curricula to meet future needs.

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At many companies, technology has changed the execution of audits; most already use data and analytics as a matter of course. Meanwhile, technologies such as artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and robotic process automation are becoming more prevalent. All of these digital technologies can provide different perspectives, requiring enhanced skills.

Audit skills—objectivity and professional skepticism with an intense focus on enhancing quality—can also help provide broader assurance about nonfinancial data. These skills are valuable in a world where the volume of available information can be overwhelming.

Skills for the Future

To process ever-larger quantities of data, companies will become more dependent on technology. Auditors, therefore, will need to understand these systems to better identify risks and evaluate whether the right controls are in place to manage those risks.

Auditors need to understand software systems, not just how to use a program, and should be able to confidently query the system to get exactly the information they need.

Auditors need to know how to think on their feet. These same skills help them manage broadly skilled auditing teams that may one day include data and cognitive scientists, mathematicians, and others who can deliver the appropriate audit evidence to improve quality.

KPMG Learning Initiatives

The authors’ firm, KPMG, has been building a new learning and innovation center in Florida. The center will offer flexible opportunities for learning, encompassing live, virtual, and on-demand programs. Students will benefit from “micro-learning” sessions, social learning, and simulation-based learning. The varied program offerings are intended to engage participants and help them better retain the content. The center also will have a dedicated lab space.

KPMG has built relationships with leading U.S. colleges and universities, including professor-in-residence and scholarship programs, as well as other academic initiatives. It also offers employee training programs to promote critical thinking and lifelong learning.

KPMG has worked with nine leading business schools to develop a master’s of accounting program with a concentration on data analytics. KPMG worked with the schools to provide real-world application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other advanced technologies with the universities’ own master’s degree courses in accounting and tax.

Those interested in learning more about the program should visit http://www.kpmgmasters.com or watch a video at https://youtu.be/xqdoXW-pE4k

The nine schools in the program are as follows:

  • Arizona State University—W. P. Carey School of Business
  • Baylor University—Hankamer School of Business
  • Ohio State University—Max M. Fisher College of Business
  • University of Georgia—Terry College of Business
  • University of Mississippi—Patterson School of Accountancy
  • University of Missouri—Robert J. Trulaske, Sr. College of Business
  • University of Southern California—Leventhal School of Accounting
  • Villanova School of Business
  • Virginia Tech—Pamplin College of Business

As lifelong learners, today’s auditors must keep up with and even anticipate changing and rapidly advancing technologies and regulations. Futurist Alvin Toffler, commenting on the digital and communication revolution, noted that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” To support these skill sets, corporate trainers are adapting and connecting with college and even high school programs to help students adopt the mindset of continuous learning they will need to become successful.

The Corporate Learning Evolution

The workplace has changed, and the skills needed to succeed have evolved; educational programs must also evolve to meet marketplace demands. Corporate learning has already come a long way from passive, lecture-based sessions; training programs have evolved by incorporating technology and adding experience-based training, and will become more personalized over time. In the past, employers scheduled lessons, and employees were encouraged and even pushed to take them. Now employers offer classes on demand, allowing individuals to pull only the information they think they need to be successful.

Learning can happen anywhere and at any time. Adaptive learning programs enable individuals to have a personalized course schedule based on their strengths, weaknesses, and levels of confidence. Adaptive learning also allows educational experience to be adjusted to individuals’ unique needs.

Developing Auditors for the Data Age

The profession has a critical need for people who understand data, analytics, and other forms of technology, but not all universities offer these courses in their accounting programs. Many universities have, however, developed integrated curricula that require IT students to take business courses and vice versa. This practice gives people on both sides of the technology equation the ability to interact in a way that allows them to speak the same languages when working together.

Eight Essential Professional Skills

Beyond key accounting and auditing knowledge, there are eight essential professional skills and characteristics auditors need.

Ethics and integrity

Personal ethics, integrity, and professional judgment are imperative. The public relies on the information being provided, so trust requires confidence in the knowledge and behavior of auditors.

Continuous learning

Auditors and accountants are expected to operate with the same agility as their clients amid ongoing external volatility. There will always be much to learn: business practices, new technology, leadership ability, and interpersonal skills. Continuous learners pursue development in and out of the classroom.

Relationship building and partnering

Accountants need to cultivate trust and respect from other business professionals to build productive, highly collaborative, and mutually beneficial relationships.

Communication

Accountants need excellent oral and written communication skills. They need to be able to explain clearly how a business operates—and the related accounting—to help management understand the reality behind the numbers. They need to present information in visual analytics as well as through oral or written communication.

Problem solving

Advances in technology and the massive proliferation of available information have created a new landscape for financial reporting. Accountants and auditors can only determine areas of highest risk and propose mitigations after analyzing thousands or millions of transactions. Critical thinking and analytical skills are essential to those who hope to provide strategic recommendations to decision makers.

Innovation

Auditors and accountants need to be open to new perspectives. At the same time, they should understand their own practical limitations and be able to adjust to rapidly changing business conditions and priorities.

Teamwork

The highly integrated nature of business processes requires collaboration with others who have different technical expertise. The ability to thrive on a team requires emotional intelligence as well as the skills to influence, lead, and empathize.

Diversity

With globalization, businesses are operating in a borderless corporate world. Changing demographics and the accelerating pace of globalization require auditors to work with a larger variety of ethnicities, nationalities, ages, cultures, and subcultures.

Data analytics is becoming a key element of business programs without sacrificing core accounting competencies; specifically, data analytics programs are leading the profession further into the information age. These programs integrate business and computer engineering education with the needs of the business world. They are a call to action to academics and practitioners to change how talent is educated, hired, and trained, as well as when to reach those students.

The unlimited depth and breadth of available information and advancing technologies have affected the auditing profession. Training and educational programs must ensure that auditors’ skills keep pace. Auditors will always be in demand, but only if they embrace a culture of lifelong learning.

Jackie Daylor, CPA is national managing partner, audit quality and professional practice, at KPMG LLP, New York, N.Y..
Susan St. Amant, CPA is partner-in-charge, business school audit, at KPMG LLP, New York, N.Y