It is no secret that the accounting profession is experiencing changes, among them a newfound need to understand and use data analytics. Recognizing this reality, four of the authors [two graduate students and two undergraduate students at State University of New York College at Old Westbury (SUNY Old Westbury)], searched for additional opportunities to strengthen their analytical skills. Some sought the knowledge to satisfy their curiosity, and others to enhance their marketability to potential employers. Whether undergraduate or graduate, most wanted to establish a strong foundation for a possible 40-year career that would require new and evolving skills.
Leveraging the concept of professional continuing education, the team selected the first course of the AICPA’s data analyst certificate program to begin their journey. With support from the chair of the accounting department, the School of Business graduate program director, the assistant dean, and the assistant to the dean for impact and instructional design, the authors received competitive scholarships sponsored by the provost and the dean of the School of Business. The students learned the importance of continuing professional education and began to realize the necessity of constant learning.
That was not enough, however; indeed, the students were overwhelmed by how much there was to learn. Using the NYSSCPA’s technical committee structure as a model, they formed a community of interest to expand their knowledge. Each member of the community was assigned a business analytics topic to champion; as with society committees, part of this responsibility was to transfer knowledge of their subject to other members of the group. Although the community is in its infancy, other students are beginning to express interest in joining, and the group is in the process of formalizing its operation by leveraging the NYSSCPA’s Committee Operations Manual.
Going Beyond the Classroom
Like other accounting programs, the SUNY Old Westbury program is in the process of enhancing business analytics coverage in its curriculum to reflect evolving professional and industry practices related to analytical thinking and processes. Students in two courses—one at the undergraduate level and another at the graduate level—became particularly interested in how business analytics was affecting their chosen future profession.
After class, the students would meet with the professor (the remaining author) to find out how they could learn more about business analytics. Although the lecture material covered the basics, they were concerned that it was not enough for their career objectives. One undergraduate started to research a new master’s program in data analytics that SUNY Old Westbury had just begun to offer. The others were especially interested in how analytics impacted audit and forensic investigations.
An Opportune Conversation
Working various contacts, the professor, also the immediate past chair of the AICPA’s Information Management and Technology Assurance Executive Committee and a former chair of the NYSSCPA’s Technology Assurance Committee, reached out for guidance on how best to advise his students. One such conversation occurred with the senior manager of academic initiatives for public accounting at the AICPA. This person introduced the professor to the AICPA’s emerging technology certificate badge programs and various student discounts and levels of participation meant to facilitate their use in the academic community. Program availability includes blockchain, data analysis, cybersecurity, and robotics process automation.
As most business analytics texts do not focus on accounting and finance applications, the students were excited to take this approach. The professor presented the idea of awarding potential scholarships for the AICPA digital certificate program to the dean of the School of Business, a strong champion of business analytics. The dean enthusiastically supported the initiative and obtained appropriate approvals and financial support from the provost. The chair of the accounting, taxation, and business law department, the director of graduate business studies, the assistant dean, and the assistant to the dean for impact and instructional design publicized the competitive scholarship opportunity, which resulted in four winners.
By learning from each other in a safe environment focused solely on learning, the students began to understand the opportunities provided through continuing professional education and Society committee service.
The students used the AICPA’s data analysis fundamentals course to obtain an introduction to business analytics from an accountant’s perspective. The course consisted of nine modules that the AICPA thought critical for the profession; the first two focused on data practices in the organization—that is, how data can benefit an organization and the roles and responsibilities of professionals in data analysis. The third module identified the barriers of data analysis, both culturally and cross-functionally, and identified the steps of the data-driven decision-making model. The course then introduced more technical topics, including the role of database applications used in industry and how relational databases and Structured Query Language (SQL) affect business operations. Other topics addressed included data storage tools and programs, document stores, and big data technologies. The last few modules provided students with a toolbox for conducting initial statistical analysis procedures, distinguishing between visualization tools, and understanding the impact of the data life cycle on organizations.
The Need to Learn More
Completing the program enabled the scholarship winners to enhance their network and begin to develop relationships with accounting professors, the dean, and other students, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. By learning from each other in a safe environment focused solely on learning, the students began to understand the opportunities provided to the CPA profession through continuing professional education and Society committee service, thus enhancing their ability to achieve their desired professional success.
The scholarships demonstrated to the students that the college believed in their desire to learn beyond the classroom. The awards also provided the opportunity to demonstrate their dedication to learning and hopefully impress and deliver added value to potential employers. Having received the benefits of the scholarships, the students also appreciated the responsibility of sharing their new knowledge with their peers. They knew that they could also affect other students’ careers by somehow sharing and distributing the new knowledge that they obtained.
Modeling the Business Analytics Learning Community after NYSSCPA Technical Committees
The students laid the foundation for their learning community by establishing a vision that would emphasize obtaining and transferring knowledge without the pressure of grades. Because classmates might consider joining the community solely to enhance their resumés, the students tried to organize the community differently in appearance and functionality from traditional college clubs.
The professor (who would eventually become their faculty mentor) had previously chaired two technical committees at the NYSSCPA. Like many accounting professors, he shared with his classes the vital role played by the technical committees and how NYSSCPA members came together to share experience, knowledge, and discussions relating to the challenges facing the profession. Through further discussions with the professor and a review of relevant information maintained on the NYSSCPA’s website, the students analyzed whether their planned activities could leverage the Society committee model. After reviewing the website, the students discussed how being involved with committee service could benefit their cause, as shown in the Exhibit. Although not intended, the students also obtained an appreciation of the importance and benefits of professional society committee involvement.
Applying the Committee Model
Championing a Topic
Each student chose a topic to lead, leveraging the society’s operations manual and adapting the following practices to prepare future meetings of the learning community:
- Scheduling and conducting a series of organizational meetings throughout the summer so that the community can welcome new members when the fall semester begins
- Developing an action plan statement
- Designating a member to serve as a champion for subtopics/center of excellence activities
- Considering the development of a periodic newsletter to communicate activities and foster interest on campus
- Considering the needs of new members and how to develop a welcoming learning environment
- Keeping minutes for follow-up actions (this continues to be a challenge)
- Considering how the community can conduct miniature training events or boot camps to further student competency
- Assessing the practicalities of preparing an annual report so that the collective community can celebrate its accomplishments.
The students hope that their endeavor will continue after graduation, and donated their time during the summer to share the community’s benefits and opportunities with their peers and friends. They started with a word of mouth and e-mail campaign to influence their friends and generate curiosity. Topic chairpersons are preparing topical presentation briefs for other students to introduce them to the knowledge-sharing activities of the community.
The students decided to emphasize quality and focused their initial efforts on a few vital topics, including advanced Excel, Power BI, databases (including SQL and Access), and Tableau. As the community grows, the students hope to expand the available topics. As the landscape of business analytics changes, the students plan to adapt accordingly. The community meetings will facilitate discussions about future programs and current events, detailing changes in the business environment to better prepare the students for the impact of the “data revolution” in their careers.
The accounting profession is continually changing; the birth and incorporation of technology are one of the most identifiable influences of that change. The learning community will address this concern with the integration of technology and how it can best prepare students for these changes.
The learning community enables students to go beyond classroom learning and, like the professionals they will one day be, network and learn from their peers and mentors, whether professors or those currently in practice. It provides students with a stress-free opportunity to develop their careers, just as a professional committee allows practitioners to direct theirs. It enables students to gain confidence in their ability to contribute to a team and develop many soft skills, such as communication and people skills. As with professional committees, students learn that more than one way to solve problems exists and have the opportunity to share their opinions and test-drive their ideas. Having the courage to explain a thought or belief is a crucial skill for all college students, especially future CPAs.
Practitioners—and of course, alumni—can get involved with a college-based community, connect with students, and nurture their development, hopefully resulting in the students becoming active members of the profession by eventually participating in professional association committees such as those offered by the NYSSCPA. One of the undergraduate students summarized it thus: “In my short time in this program, I have already established connections with accounting professors, our dean, and other graduate students who I would not have met if not for this scholarship. This opportunity showcases students who want to excel and learn outside of the classroom while at the same time developing the skillset to be successful in business.”