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Digital subjects for schools

but accounting remain a top choice

South African Institute of Professional Accountants
29 July 2019

Digital subjects for schools but accounting remain a top choice

Speaking at the 4IRSA Digital Economy Summit, held earlier this month at Gallagher Convention Centre in Johannesburg, President Cyril Ramaphosa said a host of digital-age subjects to be introduced at schools will help propel the country towards a competitive digital economy. They include data science and analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, additive manufacturing, robotics and quantum computing.

With this focus on 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) skills, will there be a place for Professional Accountants in tomorrow’s job market? “Without a doubt, accounting will continue to be one of the top career choices, but the roles and functions of Professional Accountants will change” says Professor Rashied Small, Executive: Education and Training at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA).

Better economy, more accountants
As more digitally astute workers enter the job market, South Africa’s position as a global contender could be greatly improved, strengthening its economy by not only providing financial information but interpreting them for economic decision-making. This trend alone will ensure the longevity of accounting. “It’s typical that, in a stronger economy, more financial transactions are raised due to increased trading – the processing will be automated, and more accountants are required to manage them for use by a range of users,” says Professor Small. This effect can be seen when comparing South Africa’s some 50,000 accountants to the UK’s 260,0000, since the latter enjoys direct trade links with the EU (at least for now).

Automated accounting
Won’t the work of accountants be automated to the point where they are replaced by machines? According to Professor Small, technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) and AI are not advanced enough to take over the higher functions of accounting, especially in a disruptive global economic environment.

Both are geared mainly towards procedural, single-outcome tasks, like capturing supplier invoices or analysing financial statements. A different task requires the installation and training of extra RPA or AI processes to facilitate effective decision-making, governance and ethics. As tasks become more complicated and interactive, the cost of automation rises to the point where human intelligence becomes the optimal solution.

“What sets human accountants apart is their ability to evaluate many complex financial scenarios simultaneously by applying integrated decision making across a wide range of associated business variables,” says Professor Small. “AI and RPA technologies do not operate at this level of sophistication – the outputs are results which will be used by accountants for decision-making across the entire organisation.”

Pure maths a must
Whether a pupil studies data science or accounting, pure maths is set to become the foundation of all future business. Data science is essentially about coding statistical solutions using appropriate data. A basic condition of statistics is a good understanding of calculus and algebra. So those studying digital subjects must be prepared to master pure maths.

“Even accountants must learn pure maths, as they will not only interact with digital processes but also act as mediators between them and decision makers,” says Professor Small. “AI can’t explain their results; it is up to the Professional Accountant, as a business advisor, to guide corporate leaders on the effective application of that data during strategy development.”

Accounting iNdaba 2019
SAIPA will address these and other effects of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) at its upcoming Accounting iNdaba 2019, to be held at the Cape Town International Convention Centre from 13th to 15th August. The Institute welcomes Professional Accountants from all PAOs to register for attendance at