Keeping Up With Technology, As Observed Through CPA Continuing Education

Dawn of The Dead

More than 40 years ago, I started working at Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC). Even though I was on the consulting track, I was encouraged to sit for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam and become a licensed CPA. Having this license, along with an MBA, boosted my career and I subsequently served as CFO at five different companies over the years. During that period, I kept my license active, requiring me to complete 40 hours of continuing professional education annually and report those hours to Maryland, my state of licensure.  In 2005, I opted to go to inactive status since I was then president and CEO of APUS/APEI. Last summer, while planning for my retirement in 2020, I opted to reactivate my license which required completing 80 hours of CPE. I was able to do so online but it consumed much free time through early November.

Many organizations offer CPE for CPAs and accountants. Many state societies of CPAs provide it and it’s a significant revenue source beyond member dues. The AICPA also provides CPE courses to both members and non-members.  While my license had become inactive, I continued my memberships in AICPA and the Maryland Association of CPAs.

As CEO of a public company (American Public Education, Inc.) for more than 12 years, I have participated in over 50 quarterly audit committee meetings and kept up with some of the major changes in SEC and Financial Accounting Standards Board regulations and rule changes over time.  However, now that I was looking at CPE catalogs for the first time in many years, I was pleasantly surprised that some topics ranged beyond financial auditing, corporate and personal taxation, financial and estate planning, etc. For example, there was an entire series of courses listed under the “MBA Express” category. Others were organized under leadership, communication, performance management, business ethics and information technology, among others.

Three certificate programs that particularly intriqued me were: Blockchain Fundamentals, Robotic Process Automation Fundamentals, and Cybersecurity Advisory Services. While all three were topics with which I was familiar, I was unsure how widespread knowledge and adoption of these topics was among my peers. Completing each of them gave me a better glimpse into where advancements are going and what professionals are doing to prepare for them.

Many people associate Blockchain with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. I was familiar with some of the work being done in supply chain management using the Blockchain construct to tag all the components of a manufactured item from raw material to final product, including its movements from warehouse to retailer to purchaser.

In higher education, there are discussions about using Blockchain as the framework for tracking courses, certificates and degrees earned by individuals over their lifetimes. Our own International Journal of Open Educational Resources wrote about using Blockchain to protect authorship rights of academic researchers who want to publicly share their research results.

Through the Blockchain coursework, I gained additional insights into some of the security and control concerns about the technology and some legal issues regarding privacy and product ownership. While awareness of the adoption of the technology outside of cryptocurrency may  be limited, it’s clearly not going away and I am glad to see accounting and finance professionals providing such educational materials.

The second topic, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is not new. It originated in the business process reengineering engagements of the 1990’s when many large companies hired consultants to examine their businesses and recommend efficiencies to deliver products and processes quicker and less expensively, often using fewer people.  Some inefficiencies in accounting and finance departments have been due to the need to prepare reports from data collected in multiple systems and by multiple people because the business did not have the time or money to implement an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. When these issues were identified, some clever entrepreneurs realized that some issues could be rectified by creating a program to automate some of the process steps used by the many people preparing reports.

According to the course materials, more than 80 vendors offer RPA software.  Today, it typically operates in “the cloud”, but can also be installed “on-premise” at the client’s place of business. Many routines can be programmed without the assistance of IT staff, although ill-advised due to security and control issues. As more businesses shift operating systems to cloud-based software and data, I anticipate increased RPA utilization and fewer people needed for regular financial processing.

Cybersecurity, thirdly, is a topic that concerns anyone in the C-Suite or director role for an Internet-based company. For years, companies have left the job of protecting their assets from cyber attacks to IT professionals. Fortunately, the AICPA recognized some time ago that companies should formalize their cybersecurity planning and engage outside professionals like CPAs to review those plans. In fact, in 2017, AICPA issued a framework for organizations to communicate their cybersecurity risk management programs and for CPAs to review the organization’s assessment of their programs and controls. This certificate reviews the steps necessary to develop such a program and its appropriate elements, management’s assertion of the degree to which the controls are working, and the accountant’s report about their review and opinion regarding the program and quality of the controls established to prevent cyber intrusions and business interruption.

Any company that offers products and services on the Internet is continually flooded with activity from hackers and others seeking to steal information, disrupt the business or both. Having the AICPA take the initiative in defining how a company can develop and share its risk management program with its senior management team,  directors,  bankers, insurors, etc., is important.

I’m glad to see the accounting profession out in front of issues confronting business beyond those typically associated with CPAs. Completing these certificates will help me in my role as a leader and company director and continue my lifelong learning journey.

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