This year, McIntire offered a new course for M.S. in Accounting students called Data Management and Analytics for Accountants. Sarah Kusher, MSA’ 18, recently interviewed Professor Chris Maurer to gain a better understanding why learning analytics is important to accountants.
Kusher: Why is data analytics important to the accounting industry and profession?
Maurer: Data has always been a cornerstone of the accounting field as so much of the work relies on the accuracy and integrity of information collected, recorded, and properly summarized/reported. While this has allowed the accounting field to operate effectively, there are significant efficiency gains and opportunities to use data for more than simply summarizing and reviewing. Many accountants are starting to realize that automated analytical techniques can help reduce manual tasks such as authorizing transactions or reviewing the validity of transactions. Historical data can also be used to predict future trends, which serve as comparison points when completing audits or preparing a tax plan. We are only starting to scratch the surface of the potential for integration of analytics into the accounting field, and I am excited to see developments in the next few years.
Kusher: What has been your experience so far teaching accounting students?
Maurer: Most accounting students appreciate rules, structure, and facts. When teaching the technical components of a data management class, it is easy to relate to students who emphasize facts and rules because SQL code has a defined structure and there are explicit rules for how to write proper SQL statements. It can become challenging when teaching more abstract concepts like data modeling or analytics because while one solution may be better than others there is not a single correct answer. How does one distinguish between a “good enough” solution and the “best solution”? I challenge my students to think about possible failure points or complications that may arise with a “good enough” solution. By looking at solutions from multiple angles, they become better problem solvers.
Kusher: What software do you incorporate into the academic experience?
Maurer: In order to give students hands-on practice using an actual database in The Data Management and Analytics for Accountants course, we quickly review Microsoft Access and then transition into using Microsoft SQL Server. Students get an opportunity to build their own databases on this platform through a semester-long project. For analytics, I introduce students to Tableau and demonstrate how to retrieve data from databases, perform necessary conversions or calculations of the data and create meaningful visualizations that provide insights to accountants and business professionals. In the future, I hope to integrate other analytics tools into the curriculum to provide students with additional exposure to prediction models.
Kusher: How do you see the industry changing in the next few years in regards to big data and data analytics?
Maurer: In the next few years, I believe data analytics will continue to play a bigger role within organizations and, more specifically, in the accounting field. From an audit perspective, I believe analytical methods will allow auditors to increase sample sizes without increasing the number of hours needed to perform an audit. I think it will take more than five years, but eventually samples will no longer be needed and 100% of transactions can be reviewed in real-time. The role of the auditor will then focus more on reviewing algorithms than transactions. From a tax perspective, analytics will enable more flexible and robust simulations to predict future tax exposure and allow for improved tax planning. Fraud detection will also become more accurate over the coming years.
Despite these advances in data analytics, I don’t see a decreased demand for qualified accounting professionals. The skill sets that are valued by employers will probably shift to place more emphasis on analytical skills and an ability to use data-related technologies effectively. This is a key reason why McIntire offers the Data Management & Analytics for Accountants course – we want to give all students a competitive advantage in the job market.
Kusher: What do you like most about teaching this class?
Maurer: I have a passion for teaching and nothing is more rewarding that witnessing an “a-ha” moment for a student. Frequently, this moment comes as students are finalizing their semester-long projects where they must go through all phases of database development to produce their own system capable of storing data, producing reports, and generating visualizations for analytical purposes. Hearing students talk about how the project allowed them to realize the amount of work that goes into designing database systems and then understand how powerful those systems can be when you learn to use them effectively is greatly rewarding. I feel like it is a confirmation that I have provided students with a tangible skill that will benefit them in their future careers and there is no better feeling than knowing I helped prepare a student for a rewarding career.