"Is Accounting a Profession?"

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By CharterQuest, 18 September 2023
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Author: Valentine Dobgima Nti, CGMA, CGA, PMP, M.Sc., MBA

After three decades in the study-of and professional practice in accounting, including adjudicating professional awards, teaching and mentoring aspirants; shouldn’t the answer to this question be a no brainer?  After all, if I concluded that accounting was not a profession, how do I explain my previous published articles in which I forcefully advocated otherwise and the need for students to professionalise by pursuing a professional accounting designation rather than an academic degree? How do I explain my years building a global case study competition, showcasing accounting as a profession to young people interested to switch?  

Let me first try to practically reflect on what constitutes a profession, including constructing a case for and against accounting as a profession before concluding on this crucial question.

WHAT IS ‘A PROFESSION’?

The term profession is a practical manifestation of the ‘age-old’ disagreements in sociology. In particular, social stratification theory: the categorisation of people into groups by socio-economic factors like education, occupation, social status. Although intuitive, a universally-accepted meaning of a profession can inherently run into major disagreements. Let me submit a broad definition of a profession, as well as a definition that meets my current lived professional experience:

Broadly defined, I deem a profession to be a disciplined group of individuals (a community) who adhere to the highest ethical standards, holding themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning, which is  typically derived from research, education and training and codified in a formal competency framework; and who have the experience and are committed to  to the application of that  knowledge and skills in the in the public interest. 

Let me however, attempt an operating definition from my lived experience as a practicing member  of a profession: I think a profession is a ‘potentially fragmented’ fraternity of individuals, founded on the mutual observance of a set of rules and standards - of ethical values, education, competence and practices, as required for entry or continued membership - which are not only decidedly higher than any applicable laws, but are continuously improved, in pursuit of inter-alia, self-regulation; but most especially, for the service, benefit-to and protection of clients and the public (other than own self-interest), and for the provision of leadership to society on matters of their trade. 


MY CASE FOR ACCOUNTING AS A PROFESSION


First, given its ‘potentially fragmented’ lacuna, adapting the Recognition-By-Components (RBC) Theory, I would argue that accounting is a profession through its constituent sub-components or sub-professions, namely: 

  • Statutory component: Comprising the external audit profession, globally led by the Big  Accountancy firms; and

  • Non-statutory component: Comprising the internal audit profession (globally led by the Institute of Internal Auditors (IAA)), as well as the Management accounting profession (globally led by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)).

Two limitations should be emphasised in respect of the above nomenclature: Firstly, these components are not nearly as neatly demarcating in the real life as implied here, due to potential overlaps. For instance, External Audit firms (Statutory component) sometimes undertakes Internal Audit work (Non-statutory component). Secondly, I would argue that the professional accountancy bodies (PABs) such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA),  Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) amongst others, also play a key role in the leadership of both components in South Africa and internationally as members of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). 

The statutory and the non-statutory components of the accounting profession as outlined above, constitute ‘classes’ per Max Weber’s social stratification theory and collectively, they depict the structure of the accounting profession. Whereas the non-statutory component owes its existence to the value it adds, the former is a creature-of and owes its raison d'etre to statute, inherently conformance-oriented in its mandate and therefore,  holding the balance of power and visibility within the accounting profession as a whole.

The second case for accounting as a profession is offered by the work of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) as the unified global voice of the accounting profession: precisely to organise and provide leadership to society on matters of our trade.

A federation of more than 175 Professional Accountants in Bodies (PABs) and related organisations in 130 countries and jurisdictions, representing nearly 3 million professional accountants, IFAC represents through CIMA, my voluntary membership-of and aspirations for a global accounting profession, with strong advocacy and universally-accepted rules and standards of practice. These constituent PABs in their respective countries, provide legality and an organisational basis for accounting as a profession. 

The third case for accounting as a profession stems from our inclination as humans, to place the most-talented persons in key functions in society, to motivate us to perform conscientiously. As the accounting profession sets minimum standards of ethical values, education and competency for entry and continued membership, it logically follows that my education, training and co-observance of the ethical and practice prerequisites, permits me to call accounting as a profession.  For instance, whilst I practiced in the non-statutory component of the accounting profession as an Internal Auditor, I applied such standards (e.g. the Internal Auditing Standards (IIA’s ISPPIA)) to conduct international quality assessments for major corporates. And, whilst I was  Finance Director (a role that cuts across the statutory and non-statutory components of the accounting profession), I developed a knack for the varied practical contexts in which our stock-in-trade (IFAC’s ISAs,  IFRS, US GAAP and IR Framework) is applied,  deeply appreciating that even within a profession with well-developed standards, one size doesn’t and can never fit all!

Fourth and finally, a profession is consultative and research-focused in its quest for continuous improvement: and the accounting profession is no exception. When CIMA requested my input on the Global Management Accounting Principles (GMAP) exposure draft, I finally got a chance to also contribute to the development of the profession at a global level. Similarly, when ACCA asked me to present on case study method as a prelude to their Strategic Business Leadership (SBL) module, I realised NOT only how much accounting standards, tools and techniques could be applied in Strategic Leadership, but just how much more work still needed to be done by myself personally and the profession at large in the area of Strategic Leadership Development.

The resulting intellectual curiosity has catalysed the burning desire for further development of my portfolio of skills through an M. Sc research degree and a doctorate in in Strategic Leadership Development. All this in keeping with the need for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as required by the profession I serve!


THE CASE AGAINST ACCOUNTING AS A PROFESSION

First, failure to achieve self-regulation and its wide discredit for some spectacular corporate scandals (Enrol, World com) has damaged the allure of the accounting profession as bastion of public confidence. As IFAC itself concedes the need for external regulation, some have asked: Who audits the auditors? A major Internal Audit unit I was once appointed to lead was so dogged by this question that I initiated an international peer review. The outcome was a disaster: it would latter consume my leadership for over two years, battling to restore its group standing. Did my profession adequately prepare me for these kinds of strategic leadership challenges? I am not convinced it did! Arguably, this is best addressed via Continuing Professional Development (CPD):  But how much CPD emphasis do PABs place on strategic leadership development?

Second, internal competitive rivalries - despite the work of IFAC: In most countries, each profession is served by a body (with affiliates), the accounting profession however, is typically served by as many as five PABs in some countries. Although sometimes collaborating, each PAB often acts regrettably, in its own self-interest, erecting entry barriers against each other to the detriment of the collective. 

Third, excessive subjectivity: Accounting principles, standards and techniques are notoriously fraught with subjectivity: in financial reporting (accruals, provisions, impairments); in auditing (sampling, denial for fraud detection responsibilities); in Management accounting (overhead costing), to name a few! 

CONCLUSION   


In this essay, I have defined a profession -my way, situating it within the field of sociology; in particular, the social stratification theory. I have done so while straddling the case for and against accounting as a profession. On the balance, despite IFAC’s role in filling its ‘potentially fragmented’ lacuna, and the wide professional development experiences I have gained over the years, I feel the profession did fail me. Through the excessive focus of the accounting profession on technical skills development to the detriment of strategic leadership skills, the profession continues to fail many, as much as it has also been indefensibly unimmunised from other scandals. The spectacular failures of the external audit component is as staggering as the balance of power and visibility they command. This is not to say the non-statutory component is any perfect: it is largely responsible for my own apathetic lived experiences!

Whilst it is crucial a profession be able to set standards higher than the applicable laws -and the ‘accounting profession’ has largely been successful at this, policing the observance of the standards, despite robust disciplinary systems against members who act otherwise, has not seemed to curb the capitalist self-interest excesses in our worst instincts. The resulting tendency to over-promise and under-deliver, aggravated by our propensity for infighting and self-destruction has found the profession trapped in a quagmire of persistent public and regulatory scrutiny, derogating from our aspiration to be more noble and self-regulating.  

On the balance, if the question was whether accounting is a noble profession: my direct answer would be NO; as the case against it though numerically fewer, in my mind, significantly out-weights the case for it. Given the question as framed, however, I would say YES -accounting is a profession! Not because of my pre-conceived biases but because as humans we are characteristically fallible, yet our infallibilities is not sufficient to make us less human. Similarly, the case against accounting as a profession, which stem purely from its fallibilities, does not warrant a conclusion that accounting is not a profession!

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