Assessing the ‘New Information Professional’ Beyond College

By Michael J. Krause

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SEPTEMBER 2007 - To obtain or maintain accreditation, academic institutions look to outcomes assessments as a continuous improvement–based way to establish the quality of their programs. Outcomes assessments require professors to make judgments about learning goals and the means to implement them, and adjust strategies to obtain such goals. Ethical awareness and communications skills (based on critical thinking) are two crucial goals for an undergraduate developing into a practicing accountant. Once a commitment has been made to specific learning goals, the task becomes one of measuring the effectiveness of the implementation strategy. That measurement process can no longer be limited to simply grading students on three exams per semester.

‘The New Information Professional’

Can professors market updated educational methods and provide practitioners insights into new ways to evaluate organizational goals? In “The Evolution of the Knowledge Professional” (Accounting Horizons, March 2002), Robert K. Elliott and Peter D. Jacobsen asked academics to work with practitioners, and inspired the title for this article. They contend that “the new information professional” needs to serve the “Information Economy” paradigm, which requires “a body of knowledge more suited to the realities of the marketplace, to the needs of decision makers, and to the future prospects of both.” Elliott and Jacobsen challenged accounting professionals to evolve their practice or face a declining role in the economy. Current practitioners should answer the challenge with pride. Proof of this can be found in the continuing emergence of the public accountant’s role in detecting fraud and evaluating the effectiveness of internal controls over financial reporting. Can academics help practitioners build upon the profession’s recent success in responding to marketplace information needs and regulatory requirements?

Academics use rubrics as an evaluation device to measure the extent to which students have progressed in obtaining certain skills or awareness, based upon an analysis of assigned output. A rubric is a means to embed in a course project an assessment opportunity that measures learning-goal achievements and provides students with consistent measured feedback. Subjectivity can never be completely eliminated when professors grade students by means other than objective test questions. But a rubric at least establishes norms and ranges within which subjectivity can be controlled. For example, the rubric shown in the Exhibit was written by Hollis Ashbaugh and Karla M. Johnstone (“Developing Students’ Technical Knowledge and Professional Skills: A Sequence of Short Cases in Intermediate Financial Accounting,” Issues in Accounting Education, Volume 15, Issue 1, 2000).

To successfully implement an audit engagement or a management accounting system, both planning and control must be at work. A rubric derived from a plan generates the tools to implement control and to track progress. The rubric presented here reflects instructions for a project required by a course syllabus. The syllabus is a statement of the learning objectives of the organization as implemented by the professor as an agent for the academic institution. In a specialized accounting practice, the organization as a whole can establish objectives that are then implemented by section leaders, who, like a professor, act as agents for the entire organization. In a rubric that consists of six or seven factors, some factors could be established based on company values, while the rest could be based on the specific skills necessary for a specialized practice section. Audit staff and tax staff have different tasks but the same basic professionalism. Understanding the commonality of general staff skills versus special section skills can facilitate transfers between sections and the additional training needed due to such transfers.

Building Bridges

For accounting education to be relevant, a bridge must be maintained between the academic community and the professional community. Over the past three summers a nationally known CPA firm has sponsored what it calls a “university” where approximately 75 partners interact with 350 accounting professors. The idea has been to give professors the opportunity to participate in the same learning experiences as the firm’s professional personnel, who apply auditing standards and accounting principles in the current business and regulatory environment.

Should practitioners cross over the bridge to learn from the academic world? And in their efforts to develop valued information professionals, can practitioners make use of the ways professors evaluate students? They have a publicly stated reason to do so. Searching another nationally known CPA firm’s website, one can find a commitment to support its people: “[W]hen we achieve our best as individuals, our clients benefit and our business prospers.” The firm describes this business culture as “our People First environment.” This environment appears to support the idea that achieving goals valued by public accountants requires an organization to have a well-respected and ethically committed workforce.

All entrants into the public accounting field should be able to take with them fundamental analytical, communication, and people skills, begun in academia and strengthened in the workplace. These skills should be nurtured through a dynamic evaluation process that communicates to all stakeholders the values and the ethics of a particular firm and the profession in general. The evaluation process itself should be looked at as a nonfinancial indicator that contributes to the success of the enterprise and the profession. What better advertisement of the value of public accounting and the effectiveness of accounting education could there be than to see new information professionals rising to the highest levels of leadership in industry, government, and education? Such success will sustain the accounting profession as a vital part of the information economy. Practitioners and educators share responsibility for the well-being of the accounting profession. This duty requires developing professionals with appropriate skills, ethics, and values.

Ethical Leadership

Proper assessment strategies should identify leaders who provide ethical role models of excellence. For example, U.S. Steel Corporation (USS) CEO John P. Surma, CPA, a member of the AICPA and former partner in a national CPA firm (1987–1997), serves as a role model for the aspiring new information professional. In remarks to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of the American Accounting Association in Pittsburgh in 2006, Surma declared that he could live with whatever financial statement results were presented to him for the required 2005 annual SEC filing. He just wanted to be assured that those would be the same results for 2005 five years from now.

Rather than being constrained by the bottom line, Surma asks to be constrained by the truth. His information needs are not bound by earnings, but rather by other nonfinancial indicators that demonstrate progress in achieving planned outcomes for important corporate goals, profitability among them. In his message introducing the USS Corporation 2005 Annual Report, Surma refers to a commitment made by USS to be a global leader in safety as compared to all types of manufacturers: “Statistics show that safety leaders also tend to be the best in terms of productivity, quality, reliability and financial performance. As a result of this commitment, in 2005 we made dramatic improvements in our safety performance.”

The actual indicators used by USS to measure safety performance are as follows: OSHA recordable case rate (42% reduction in 2005) and days away from work cases (65% reduction in 2005). Surma began his message to shareholders by talking about safety records despite the fact that earnings for the past two years were the highest in USS history. (Subsequent 2006 earnings continued the trend, rising another 36%.) These record earnings followed well-publicized financial troubles, namely increased steel tariffs that led USS to report a net loss of $436 million in 2003.

In 1962, Lynn A. Townsend, CPA, became Chrysler’s president; he retired in 1975. Townsend had joined the automaker in 1957 as comptroller after rising to partner in a national CPA firm. When Townsend died in August 2000, his obituary in Ward’s Auto World referred to him as “a consummate bean-counter.” Will Surma someday escape the epitaph “bean-counter,” the classic stereotype of the “old” information professional?

Ironically, despite the well-publicized financial woes at Chrysler Corporation in the 1970s, Townsend deserves to be remembered. This author challenges any accounting academic or practitioner to read Townsend’s August 1966 address to the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the American Accounting Association, published in the January 1967 Accounting Review. In that speech, “A Career in Business Accounting,” Townsend described the accountant’s role as a “strategist” (like Surma linking profitability to worker safety) while championing “the dynamics of group action.” He promoted a world economic view while predicting the destruction of Communism from within. All or parts of that speech should be considered visionary. Townsend turned Chrysler’s leadership over to fellow CPA John Riccardo, who shortly thereafter brought on board the acclaimed marketing expert Lee Iacocca. Why couldn’t Lynn Townsend’s legacy as a CPA CEO be sustained? Will John Surma’s legacy as a CPA CEO be maintained? The answers might be found in the assessment systems found in academia and in accounting practice.

Rather than producing brilliant exceptions to a publicly held stereotype, the halls of accounting education and accounting practice should be fostering a sustained output of ethical information professionals who regularly achieve the highest levels of business leadership. If indeed such a leadership core does truly exist today, then the profession must do a better job of trumpeting the accomplishments of these new information professionals. To achieve such lofty outcomes, mentoring and promotion through sustained measured assessments must be a prevailing strategy.

Michael J. Krause, MS, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting at the University of Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Ind.




















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