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Accounting is being drawn into a new future

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From Accounting Today: As we prepare to close out this most tumultuous of years, I can’t help but reflect on the immense changes we’ve witnessed the profession make in a very short time. Remote work has gone from the exception to the rule, which has, in turn, forced a rethink of virtually every process and procedure in our professional practices, from client communications, to regulatory compliance, to cybersecurity. Let’s not even get into audits without site visits.

It’s also, I’ve observed, created a new emphasis on staff safety and morale, and a growing understanding of our all-too-human personal challenges, like getting a toddler down for a nap before the next Zoom call. While it was a little touch and go at first, over the course of this year our profession has become a success story of rapid adaptation to fast-changing circumstances.

While I’m certainly impressed, I’m hardly surprised. After all, we’ve done it many times before.

When the first CPA was licensed in 1896, there was no public company audit requirement, no uniform accounting standards, and there wasn’t even a federal income tax or an IRS to administer it. The job of a CPA even as early as the 1950s would seem alien and inscrutable to our 1896 professional — just as our 1950s CPA would be perplexed by another from the year 2000. And in just two decades, this CPA from the year 2000 has borne witness to a number of seismic changes that have even further transformed the profession.

In the grand scheme of things, 20 years is not a lot of time, yet within even that span, we have seen major change. We have seen the profession’s digital transformation complete, so that today even the smallest sole practitioner makes use of sophisticated software tools as a matter of course. We have seen the explosive growth of advisory services that brings the CPA’s expertise to the realm of business strategy. We have seen the rise of entirely new practice areas, like sustainability accounting, as well as new industries to apply them to, like cannabis.

We have also seen an increased awareness of our relevance to wider social issues, like gender equity and racial justice. With this has come a new emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion in the accounting world as we work to move this profession past the cultural paradigms that have dominated it for generations. Doing so is, yes, a matter of dollars and cents, but also a matter of morals and ethics, the logical extension of the integrity and rectitude that has been the hallmark of our profession since its inception.

It is no exaggeration to say we stand at the threshold of a new era, and with it a new understanding of ourselves. We see it in initiatives like CPA Evolution, which recognizes the growing number of skills required of the modern CPA. We see it in projects like the Dynamic Audit Solution, which acknowledges the increasingly data-driven, analytical nature of today’s audits. We see it in the myriad efforts across the country to build a more diverse, equitable and inclusive profession, including right here at the New York State Society of CPAs. We see it in the growing role of CPAs in the movement for corporate social responsibility.

These are only a few small samples of how the profession is changing before our very eyes, and they are only the beginning. We may wax nostalgic about the world that was, and we may even lament the loss of its old ways, but regardless of how we feel, the CPA, like everyone else on the planet Earth, is being drawn into a new future. We can either fight it as we search for increasingly awkward ways to wedge the old world into the new, or we can face it and use our famous strategic minds to find new ways to thrive in this changing world, as we have always done before and always will in the future.