Date posted: 8/02/2018 7 min read

Skills for The Professionals of 2020: Big Data Accounting Course

Macquarie Uni and Chartered Accountants ANZ launch Australia’s first university course module combining big data and accounting.

In Brief

  • Employers are seeking students with big data and analytics skills.
  • The new course simulation and big data module is a collaboration between Macquarie University and CA ANZ.
  • Students will learn the skills of big data accounting, including non-financial reporting.

As the world grapples with an explosion of big data for business, finding workers with the right sets of skills is proving to be extremely challenging for industry. However, a new Macquarie University course trialled in 2017 to train accounting students in Big Data analysis may help to fill the skills gap in Australia.

The Macquarie University course Accounting in Context (ACCG399), developed through a collaboration between Macquarie University and Chartered Accountants ANZ, is to teach students the skills of big data accounting. This new course is the last subject taught on the accounting degree before students enter the CA program.

Combining material from CA Kairos, the Chartered Accountants ANZ big data platform, with a wide variety of public data sources, an initial course simulation project moved to reality during 2017, with two major cohorts of students participating in simulation and assessment. This is believed to be the first university award course incorporating big data concepts directly into an accounting curriculum. 

Being conversant with big data, as well as gaining analytical skills, provides graduates with an edge in the job market for the foreseeable future as big data becomes central to accounting and audit.
Suresh Sood PHD Data Scientist, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand

As Australian organisations struggle to keep up with an extraordinary rise in the volume of data, 77% of respondents to the PwC Big Data Cross Sector Project survey report difficulty in finding staff to hire with relevant Big Data skills that are needed in their industry. 

Accountants are going to be on the frontline among professions which need to develop these skills, as big data becomes central to accounting and audit processes. If accountants are not trained in this field, the new roles of data scientists and data analysts will become custodians of business data and accountants will miss a seat at the table, with key executives making strategic decisions.

In particular, managers of the future will need to be data-savvy. A survey of US employers has found 59% of finance and accounting managers believe data science and analytics skills will be required of all managers by 2020. The joint survey on investing in data analytics talent, by the Business-Higher Education Forum and PwC, says there is a current shortage of skills in this area, which can’t be met by business-as-usual strategies.

Hence the need for greater access to business analytics courses to accommodate a data industry that is expected to harness almost three million jobs in the US by 2020, according to a report by IBM.  

What do students learn?

Recognising that a key aspect of big data is non-financial information, the new Macquarie University course teaches students a new set of skills to extract data from annual reports and government sources, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Austrade, Bureau of Metrology and the Australian Tax Office (ATO). 

This leads students to analyse unstructured data, including narratives in annual reports and the press releases of agribusinesses. Students also extract patterns or insights from the data using Microsoft Power BI or Google Sheets, demonstrating to employers sought-after skills in data analytics. 

Lessons learned from the simulation, which will help other universities assimilate cutting-edge professional content into existing accounting curriculum during 2018 include:

1. Tools focus where students learn how to extract data using machine learning techniques and to conduct automated analysis using a new generation of tools beyond the spreadsheet, including (but not limited to) Microsoft Power BI, Google Spreadsheet and Fusion Tables. Text analysis tools help pinpoint emotional signals from word patterns and phrases to determine any hint of insider trading. By providing access to different tools, students can determine which are best suited for controls testing or visualising fraudulent claims.

Related: Big data accounting - the predictive accountant

The rise of a new accounting paradigm – big data accounting.

2. Non-financial large data sets are part of essential weaponry to  develop big data accounting skills. Such data includes website data from Google Analytics or even video footage from a drone conducting an inventory of goods in one space. The data sets need not be big in terms of millions of rows of data - thousands of rows are adequate to teach the concepts.

3. Building predictive data analytic skills through hands-on work, with tools and data to not only solve problems but explore large data sets to check first-hand for any useful discoveries amongst the data. For example, using big data instead of trend historical data and looking at each customer to predict whether the customer will pay or not is an ideal use case for introducing accounting students to predictive analytics.

The future of accounting

The future of the accounting profession depends not only on using new forms of data, but on reconsidering accounting standards and practices embracing big data. Being conversant with big data, as well as gaining analytical skills, provides graduates with an edge in the job market for the foreseeable future as big data becomes central to accounting and audit.

Students say that exercises they carried out in the new Macquarie University course simulation in 2017 provides an opportunity to share unique perspectives by interpreting the data analytics findings in own data stories rather than following a prescription for sharing the data findings.

In the wider accounting industry, a transition to a new world of accounting has literally taken place, with manual bookkeeping contributing to a mere 3% of revenues from accounting services in Australia during 2017, according to IBISworld. 

This figure foreshadows an overall trend in activities previously performed by entry roles, including cadets and graduates being replaced entirely by technology. New tools of big data such as machine learning also include the automated acquisition and data entry of expense claims. 

At the same time, new incoming employees or students have opportunities to focus on data analytics and non-traditional information sources (big data). This provides  a focus on value-added activities for the business.

Chartered Accountants ANZ collaboration

The new course is the result of successful collaboration involving Senior Macquarie University Lecturers Samantha Sin and Andreas Hellman, who are course co-ordinators within the Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance of Macquarie University, working together with myself, (Suresh Sood, CA ANZ Data Scientist.)

We devised and developed the business simulation “Big Data and Systems of Insight for Agribusiness”. Initially, Kiara Ramos, who is the CA Careers Engagement Coordinator, flagged the opportunity to help fill the gap in big data accounting skills training.

The new course is a valuable contribution to industry and to new generations of future accountants.

Related: How accountants can harness the new data power of drones

Drones are a major source of Big Data and are changing accounting and audit in a seismic shift.

This article is part of a regular Working In Business column for CAs working in finance departments within the accounting profession. As part of this column, Acuity is running a series by Suresh Sood specifically looking at the rise of big data accounting and what it holds for the future of the accounting profession.