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The New Face of Number Crunching

Modern work culture enters accountancy firms

The accounting profession is still suffering from old stereotypes: stagnant and boring number crunching. Mention the word “accountant” and people still picture a worker hunched over a desk, never seeing the light of day. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

On the heels of some pretty big mistakes by some pretty big companies, rules and regulations are constantly changing in all areas of accounting: the fiscal cliff caused unexpected tax law changes; the SEC continually issues guidance for reporting transactions.

But it’s not just the technical side of accounting that is changing. It’s the culture and work environment, even the business model.

When students ask what it’s like to be an accountant, I want to give them a straight answer. The only way to do that is to keep getting my hands dirty, keep getting reacquainted with the accounting profession.

In fall 2012, I left my ego at the door; I became an “intern” — again. I spent three months as a Professor-in-Residence at one of the Big Four accounting firms. At the Chicago office of KPMG, LLP, I attended training, worked on client materials, researched, prepared tax returns and answered review notes. There were technical updates and applying new laws. I tackled tough client issues. But it was the new accounting culture that was most fascinating.

I knew the profession had changed post-Enron with the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) in 2002. It’s something that I often discuss with recruiters on campus. It was even better to see it in action. To see how ethics and risk management have actually shaped company culture.  Compromising standards is neither expected nor acceptable. At KPMG, an Ethics and Compliance Hotline is open for anonymous reporting of unethical, immoral or improper conduct.

A new “workplace-of-the-future” is home to about 1,800 people in Chicago. Forget the postage-stamp-sized cubicles. The office has interactive workspaces in the form of shared desks and lots of conference areas. Only partners have offices and they are all glass. Innovative technology promotes teamwork, collaboration and mobility internally and among KPMG’s global locations. Social media platforms and Apple computers — once reserved for creative advertising and marketing gurus — are part of the mix. And many accountants are on the road, interacting and networking with clients and colleagues.

Post-SOX, the work environment involves ethics and transparency, document retention, and risk minimization. Training is extensive and sign-off on all jobs is necessary.  The work is also highly competitive. Instead of partners and managers bringing in business, there are professional business developers that do not necessarily have a tax or accounting background but do much of the initial selling and customer outreach.

What is the message I will bring back to the classroom? There is so much more to the accounting profession than rules and regulations. There is vibrancy. There is a need to be social. There is opportunity to create a new “stereotype” for a new generation.

Tracy Noga is an associate professor of accountancy at Bentley University.

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