WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Business advisors. Analysts. Critical thinkers. You won’t find the old-fashioned idea of an accountant at Wake Forest University’s School of Business and its Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) program. Instead, you’ll find professionals who can not only balance the books but also confidently use business analytics to help advise and guide an organization. The School’s curriculum now provides all graduate accounting students leading-edge analytics instruction and real-world applications.
“Accountants today need more advanced and hands-on experience with data analytics, whether it be to handle issues related to an external or internal audit, tax advisory, due diligence or business advisory. Companies are increasingly turning to their CPAs and asking business and market-based questions,” said Jim Willis, associate dean of the School’s MSA program. “There’s a critical demand for accounting professionals who possess highly technical analytics skills, critical thinking and the ability to tell a compelling story to influence business decisions.”
While some business schools have begun partnering or consulting with accounting firms to offer an analytics track to a handful of curated students, Wake Forest has integrated analytics into its core accounting curriculum. No matter which track Wake Forest students choose – assurance, tax, or the unique financial transaction services – they’ll gain a mastery of business analytics for their career.
“Employers need professionals who can think differently,” Willis said. “Our connection to the marketplace enables us to focus on understanding what clients need and teaching students how to deliver. We recently hired Deloitte’s Tom Aleman, a leading expert in the field, to bring this experience to the classroom and set Wake Forest’s MSA students apart.”
Aleman joined Wake Forest as a professor of practice in accounting analytics in July. He brings practical, hands-on expertise in analytics and forensic technology to the classroom. Aleman spent 36 years handling large and complex data projects with the Big Four; 21 of those years serving as a partner in advisory consulting services. He was formerly Deloitte’s U.S. National and Global Leader of Analytics and Forensic Technology Services.
“Incorporating analytics into accounting is more than crunching the data,” said Aleman. “It begins with asking the right questions and ensuring you’re collecting the right data to achieve the objectives and insights required.”
This fall, under Aleman’s guidance, students began the first of four analytics courses. The intro to analytics course establishes concepts in data analytics, big data, visualization, and presentation. “What’s important is that they’re starting with the business issues and developing a premise. This is where they learn to ask the right business questions, so they know they have the right data to examine.”
The second course focuses on data wrangling, with students mastering the ETL process – extract, transform, load. The course teaches students how to request and extract data from different systems or applications. The students will learn how to clean the data for completeness and accuracy. “In this course, students will work with messy data. They’ll handle issues related to the four V’s of big data: volume, variety, velocity, and veracity,” Aleman said. “In the real world, accounting professionals aren’t usually handed a nice clean data set. Data fields change over time, systems are updated, and legacy data is often left in its original form. This leads to inconsistencies, gaps and potentially lost data.”
The third course concentrates on data visualization with an emphasis on not only mastering tech tools like Tableau and Alteryx, but the science of visuals, and the ethics of visualization.
The final course focuses on data communications and presentations. “We close out the year with a capstone course that brings it all together,” Aleman said. “Our students will focus on how best to communicate the analysis they have learned to develop. Overall, it’s not just about providing a clean spreadsheet to a manager, but asking the right questions, solving the business issues, finding the insights, and communicating them to inform the organization’s decisions.”
Aleman’s connection to Wake Forest began with guest lectures in Prof. George Aldhizer’s forensics and auditing course for the past few years. The lectures expanded on data analysis project work Aldhizer provided his students in detecting fraud, using drones for inventory, identifying kickbacks, and finding other red flags. “When you can identify 30-50 transactions that are truly anomalous using these software tools, you can focus detailed testing on them as opposed to random sampling which can fail miserably because it’s truly a needle in a haystack,” Aldhizer said. “Finding these few transactions among the tens of millions annually in a Fortune 500 company is virtually impossible without these leading tools.”
Aldhizer and Vice-Dean Michelle Roehm piloted the data communications and presentations course last spring in preparation for this increased focus on analytics in accounting. “Our graduates serve as business advisors,” Willis said. “By bringing this analytics point of view to their expertise, our graduates will be able to make an impact within the organizations that hire them. Their ability to think differently and ask the right business questions will enable them to transcend traditional roles and help guide decision making on a broader scale.”
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