Features | From Pivot Magazine

What role should accountants play in the age of Big Data?

Data is key to Canada’s economic future—and CPAs should be the ones to wield it

A Facebook IconFacebook A Twitter IconTwitter A Linkedin IconLinkedin An Email IconEmail

Businesswoman and businessman talking profit on futuristic displayCPAs will not need to be data scientists, but they will need to understand the science of data (Getty Images/guvendemir)

Big Data presents CPAs with big opportunities. The torrent of digital information flowing through our economy represents an immense source of future growth and value creation. To fully leverage these opportunities, we must establish governance, valuation and standards frameworks. Who will collect the data, own it, verify it—and how? Only once these and other questions are addressed will entrepreneurs, companies and investors be able to innovate and compete to the fullest extent.

Unsurprisingly, one of the findings of CPA Canada’s Foresight process—a series of roundtables and online consultations meant to define the future of the accounting profession—is that CPAs should play a key role in answering those questions. In particular, the profession needs to seize the opportunities presented by “data value chains.” As analytics expert Michel Girard explains, data value chains encompass a wide range of players, including data scientists, engineers and analysts. Professional accountants are well positioned to work in this rapidly evolving space because we possess an abundance of experience marshalling data to unlock insights, tell stories and provide assurance within the context of ethical and regulatory systems.

Since we began to focus on our role in data, I have been asked frequently whether CPAs will need to retrain or expand our skills. Do we need to learn data science, programming or analytics?

CPAs will not need to be data scientists, but we will need to understand the science of data. As the Foresight Phase I report states, we should think of data governance and data value creation as the domains where CPAs can “play.” To get there, we also need to have a broad conversation about “how to play”—that is, addressing the skills and competencies CPAs will need to provide our insight to data value chains.

While the CPA Competency Map was revised in 2018 to reflect additional skills required for data analytics and information systems, a new version, to be released in 2021, will go further. In fact, we’re already applying the conclusions from Foresight’s unique consultations and visioning exercises to our professional learning processes.

Portrait of Joy Thomas, president and CEO of CPA CanadaJoy Thomas (Photograph by Matt Barnes)

There’s no doubt our profession faces a learning curve. Technologies like machine learning and blockchain—both of which rely on data—are transformative, complex and disruptive. And the pace of change is daunting, not just in the realm of financial management but across a wide range of sectors.

It’s important to remember that CPAs already possess many of the professional attributes that will allow them to thrive in emerging data-driven economies. As Girard points out, data value chains bear key similarities to other, more established value chains in natural resources, agriculture, manufacturing and beyond—sectors in which CPAs already play vital roles.

CPAs have long been versed in ensuring that value is measured consistently and that standards are adhered to. Regardless of sector, we are trained to apply our business acumen to analyses of financial information and ensure that regulatory and governance standards have been met.

We now need to understand how digital information flows into companies, how to measure that data, and how to leverage those insights to deliver value for our employers and clients.

These new digital competencies—in combination with the skills that members already possess—will allow CPAs to think holistically about data value chains and provide strategic advice. At the moment, the various pieces of these value chains are often siloed, which means there’s a pressing need for professionals who can provide necessary oversight and understand how all the disparate pieces fit together. That’s a void CPAs can fill.