Building academic bridges

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“We’re here to listen. We’re here to work with you, distinguished academics. We’re here to reinvent the profession together.” The welcoming words of Henry Irving, the Head of Audit and Assurance of ICAEW resonated through the room of 35 accounting academics from around the world. The smell of aromatic morning coffee fills the room and the eager participants chatter with interest about the workshop. It is the first time ICAEW has hosted a conference session at the British Accounting and Finance Association (BAFA) where there is no keynote speaker, no panelists, and no slides.

This is one of the key strengths of AuditFutures: an innovative and unique approach to hosting meaningful conversations and facilitating a debate. Using techniques like world cafe (link) and open space (link), we enable diverse groups of participants to develop new ideas, new arguments and new relationships. Our experience has demonstrated the importance of creating a safe environment where difficult and uncomfortable questions can be asked. Such a process gives people the freedom to explore ideas and prototype solutions.

AuditFutures in Cambridge

We had been invited by BAFA’s Auditing Special Interest Group to present our AuditFutures University programme to leading accounting academics from over a dozen countries. Following a very successful workshop with students in Manchester (link), it was important to receive diverse feedback as we are planning further events in Cardiff and London. Therefore, instead of a presentation, we had decided to deliver a workshop in which participants engaged in two exercises.

After a challenging question from Richard Spencer, Head of Sustainability at ICAEW and co-founder of the Finance Innovation Lab, we discussed our vision for the future of the profession. Working in small groups, participants developed their ideas on the role of the profession in modern society and explored the opportunities for academic research and teaching.

The second exercise was on prototyping scenarios. Academics debated practical ideas aimed at delivering our vision for the future of the profession – from re-imagining a new academic curriculum to re-designing the accounting firm of the future.

Our snapshot of auditing in the 21st century

Drawing a vision for the future is not about dreaming – it is a manifest of aspirations. There are different aspects to these aspirations and our working groups explored some of them.

One of the key points made was that we need to think about how we are trying to get to the future. Do we have a stable environment which will allow a “leap of transformation”? Or are we trying to get there in an organic way, developing in a similar way to social media? Nods in the room favoured the latter: we should “go where the flash mob happens to be”. A few other comments confirmed the view that we should not be too prescriptive in thinking about the future as many social and business factors will change. The “organic” way of following the needs of society might be a very sensible approach for the evolving profession..

A different viewpoint was introduced by the question on what type of bridge the profession wants to build to reach the future. On the one hand, the profession could take the matter into its own hands and build a bridge to an idealistic future. This would have a small chance of failure, as with any other progressive initiative, and the profession could get wet or even fall into the river. Yet, the alternative would be for the profession to stand to one side of the river, waiting passively for constructors in another part of the economy to build stable bridges (like a nationalized audit profession).

Another group debated whether auditing is a trade or a profession. If we go back to their roots in the Victorian age, professions were defined by training, shaped by legislation and were geared towards serving society whereas trades were often protected by self-serving organisations geared towards safeguarding the interests of their members. The challenge from one professor was whether the audit profession has an aspiration to serve society. Otherwise, he argued, its future would be defined by “the maximization of global wealth opportunities, and commercial possibilities for business development.” In addition, we might also add capitalization and utilization of computer technology.

Many of the participants emphasized the importance of attracting good people to the profession. While similar discussions focus on the diversity of talent, one of the key arguments presented at the conference was that “all people that come to the profession must be happy and enthusiastic about becoming auditors.” There is no relevant research on the level of excitement in young people before and after they join the audit profession, but the view in the room was that it plunges in the first years of employment.

We also talked about what the function of audit ought to be. Should it be solely a legal requirement or should it be based on market demand and what people want? The answer may be different from one organization to another with the result that auditors see their profession in different ways. One participant with extensive work in the third sector, outlined the contrasting opinions on the function of audit in the private and public sectors.

An interesting concept for two levels of professions – one global and one national – led the discussion to standards and quality. While agreeing that “the devil is in the detail,” participants discussed various aspects of harmonisation and standardisation across different jurisdictions. Some of the challenges debated were the different international environments in which financial statements are prepared and audited. The levels of complexity increase once we consider not only the legal and economic dimensions, but the social and cultural ones.

So, what does the future hold for the profession? We outlined a few visions and new dimensions for the profession and, in the second part of the workshop, explored several scenarios of how we might get there.

Open space for new ideas

The goal of the open space was to outline some ideas and practical steps of moving the debate towards a shared vision for the future. We offered a dozen scenarios to participants and they self-selected in working groups to sketch some ideas and potential next steps. Some of the most popular scenario topics were: redesign the audit curriculum, developing a GoogleAudit application, building better bridges between academia and practice, redesigning the accounting firm of the future.

For more detailed summary of the working groups, please download our Panaroma newsletter (link).

What’s next

During the engaging conversations at the conference many ideas and questions on what needs to happen have been discussed. Most of the them emphasised two emerging patterns from our work and we are planning on developing them further as part of the AuditFutures University programme.

The first great potential is in taking AuditFutures in the classroom to inspire and enthuse students.

The other space where AuditFutures can have a clear role is in facilitating the dialogue between academia and practice in areas like research agenda and teaching. We are developing new concept for engagement and will share the ideas in due course.

The next event in the AuditFutures University programme will be Los Angeles on 6 of August. We are running a workshop session for the American Accounting Association during their annual meeting. For more information and to register your interests, please click here (link). We hope to see you there!