The public view of accounting as a box-ticking, dull profession is just plain wrong. Accountants, in my experience, are like subtle detectives, appearing ordinary to the casual eye, but razor sharp underneath. An accountant can be a wizard, extracting patterns out of numbers, seeing the interconnections between structures, and cutting through the spurious claims frequently made by corporate executives. When I see an accountant, I see a potential Cerberus – a watchdog
On the other hand, accountants often don’t think of themselves like that, and tend to perceive themselves in a more humble light. I’ve been at many a party when an accountant apologetically says, “Oh, I’m just an accountant, boring I know”.
That’s not what I want to hear. What they should say is:
I’m an accountant! I hold giant power structures to account. I examine them with a forensic eye. I am the James Bond of audit, the Sherlock Holmes of analysis, the Lara Croft of hidden secrets. I can stare down Goldman Sachs and see through a mile of subsidiary companies to see what’s really under there.
At that point, everyone in the party would be looking at them, thinking, “Wow, I wish I was an accountant”. But instead, the public still has a perception of accountants – helped along by a few corporate scandals – as being prone to serving the agendas of large clients, rather than the public at large. We’ve got to change this.
So what do I mean by the ‘accountant as anarchist’? It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the original meaning of anarchism, now frequently misrepresented by the press, is an impulse towards creating self-organising systems that have explicit checks and balances on power concentrations. It is related to, but can be contrasted with, libertarian ideas, which (arguably) advocate self-organising systems that encourage private concentrations of power.
The ideal accountant, in my view, fills a vital role in shedding light on large institutions – whether those be corporate or state structures – so that their true nature can be seen by all. This is an integral element of maintaining accountability, one check on excessive power. This, to me, is essentially an anarchic ideal. The opposite, of course, is to help keep such institutions in the dark, such that power concentration can take place.
I don’t think accountants should have to be overtly combative for the sake of it, but I believe – if we had to choose an a priori stance – it is their duty to stand up to power, rather than facilitate it, and thereby to help maintain diversity and resilience in self-organising systems. Notice the dual nature of this. On the one hand it is a rebellious impulse to challenge existing structures, but it’s also a creative impulse to keep the field open for new competitors or entrants to the system.
Certainly the opportunities for accountants to get involved in creating new systems are growing. At the Transforming Finance conference hosted at ICAEW in May, there were many fascinating ideas raised, from how to account for the true social and environmental costs of economic activities, to how emergent non-monetary and non-traditional forms of exchange will disrupt existing ways of doing business. Can you map out the intangible benefits provided by social enterprises, completely missed in old-school accounting? Can you find a novel way of accounting for time and energy in sharing economies, and what about digital exchange technologies like Bitcoin?
Another great initiative supported by ICAEW is the Finance Innovation Lab’s AuditFutures programme. It has hosted incredibly frank conversations between audit professionals about how to jack the industry up for the future. I saw an accountant rapping at one of these – need I say more about the creative force here waiting to be unleashed?
Perhaps the apparently meek ethos of accounting is a side-effect of the profession presenting itself as trustworthy and competent: “here I am in my suit, carefully checking these numbers“. As corporate structures get more aggressive and opportunistic though, this image no longer convinces the public. We need a new generation of accountants that don’t fade into the background at events, and that perceive themselves as creative enablers of positive new systems. So next time you’re at that party and someone asks you what you do, you know what to say.