In days gone by, accountants were traditionally associated as individuals wearing grey suits, brown or black shoes and would arrive at their offices or clients’ premises armed with their red and green pens, ready to tick away. The accountant would arrive ready to account for, and perhaps assure, the financial position and notably the cash. This earned accountants the title of ‘bean counters’ – loosely defined as ‘a person, typically an accountant or bureaucrat, perceived as placing excessive emphasis on controlling expenditure and budgets’.
Times do move on, luckily, and I remember when my firm at which I did my traineeship (or served my articles as it was known then) adopted a ‘no tie’ policy. This certainly sent shockwaves down the corridors – that and the fact that Excel was replacing both the trusty standard and the financial calculator.
Shift forward to the present, almost 20 years later, and we have accountants working remotely or in jeans, wearing white sneakers, and using artificial intelligence-enhanced software and fully integrated systems to carry on their trade. Indeed, the days of the three-column cash book, manually posting from the cash receipts journal to the ledger account and posting from the debtor’s ledger to the general ledger are long gone.
The accountancy profession has also transitioned to one where an investor focus requires detailed attention to sustainability. Financial performance is still key, and arguably always will be, but the ability to continue to attract investment and customers relies heavily on an entity’s sustainability. Sustainability is multi-dimensional and multi-faceted, but in short, an entity’s need to fully unpack its impact on the environment including customers, climate, infrastructure, its employees and future employees, to name but a few. Furthermore, the impact of the above-mentioned factors also needs to be brought into the entity’s own strategy, planning and performance in order to continue to be ‘successful’ – and the term ‘successful’ can also be defined in numerous ways.
We have seen and are seeing radical advancements in the quality of financial reporting and developments within the corporate reporting space, where, at a global level, accountants are taking the lead in creating a global sustainability framework to achieve uniform and consistent sustainability reporting.
Indeed, we have two accounting professors who have just returned from a 1 100-kilometre paddle down the Amazon. And they were not wearing grey suits either, they were wearing camouflaged safari suits. The reason for this voyage – to physically inspect what climate change has done to one of the world’s largest natural resources, depict this, and raise funding for further research as to how corporates can physically make a difference to global sustainability. The accountant’s role is far more than reporting on sustainability, on a global basis, accountants are in leading decision-making positions.
This is a call to the accountancy profession to make this difference, to lead in this global challenge using the skills, competencies and humanity we have been trained in.
As a profession, we have transitioned from bean counter to green counter. What will the status be in 20 years’ time? How would a follow-up article read in 20 years? That is up to us, the profession. We are the difference makers.
Milton Segal CA(SA), Executive Director Standards at SAICA