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Professional accountants to offer assurance on corporate data value

South African Institute of Professional Accountants

30 June 2021

Professional accountants to offer assurance on corporate data value

A new publication, titled The Professional Accountant’s Role in Data, proposes that accountants will become major players in the quest to create strategic value from corporate data.

“Through their expertise and experience they are well positioned to bring maximum order, certainty, compliance and utility to this process,” says Professor Rashied Small, Executive of the Centre of Future Excellence (CoFE) at the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA).

The paper was released by the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), of which SAIPA is a voting member.

A data explosion

The world is being flooded with data that organisations want to use to their advantage. At the same time, increasing global regulation, aimed at protecting the public, is redefining its legitimate use.

Moreover, the integrity, quality and reliability of data used in decision-making have been limited for too long, resulting in poor data and, as a result, ineffective decisions.

“Data used to be a simple collection of ones and zeros in the digital era, but today reflects both business and public concerns that accountants are qualified and well positioned to manage,” says Professor Small.

The data management value chain

According to the paper, data progresses across several linked phases as it passes through and between organisations. It calls these the data management value chain, a term that highlights the value of data as the currency of the digitalised and technology environment.

The phases and the management roles involved comprise: data gathering by data engineers, data sharing by data controllers, data insights by data scientists, and communication by strategic advisors, each of which future-ready professional accountants will become major role players.

The document concludes that accountants can extend their existing financial data management expertise to adopt any and all of these roles.

Data assurance

A core function of accountancy is to provide professional assurance on the integrity of financial information.

In the same way, the policies, sources, structures, transportation, traceability, analytical methodologies and even strategic application of data, need to be exposed to the same exacting professional scepticism accountants insist on.

“This will guarantee that decision-making data and its associated data management practices have integrity, are fit for purpose, and align with strategic outcomes,” says Professor Small.

Strategic business advisor

Most important, according to Professor Small, is the accountant’s ability to clearly communicate the meaning and limitations of the data and offer guidance on applications for which it is valid and best suited.

As data becomes a critical component in business transactions, sometimes even being sold on to third parties, its integrity, ethical use and compliance with privacy and protection regulations must be clearly understood by all stakeholders.

Future excellence

As mentioned in the paper, accountants mainly deal with structured financial data and will need to be trained up, on the full data management lifecycle, which includes unstructured datasets.

In 2020, SAIPA launched its Centre of Future Excellent (CoFE) for this very purpose. Headed by Professor Small, the Centre monitors trends emerging from global digital transformation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

He says it also focuses on the soft skills accountants will need for excellence in communication and collaboration.

“In the future, when companies need guidance on data matters, they won’t turn to the tech industry first but rather their future-ready professional accountant,” says Professor Small.