Five in Five with Professor Stewart Leech

The music industry’s loss of a potential drumming star has become a huge gain for the world of accounting internationally. Professor Stewart Leech is one of three individuals inducted into the Accounting Hall of Fame this year, and in this interview, we uncover his contributions and achievements.

University of Melbourne alumnus Professor Stewart Leech is widely regarded as one of the most senior  and best-known Australian scholars in the Accounting Information Systems (AIS) field, both in Australia and internationally.

He has been elected as Chair/President of both the Information Systems (now AIS) and the Artificial Intelligence/Emerging Technologies (now Strategic and Emerging Technologies (SET)) Sections of the American Accounting Association (AAA), and received the AAA (SET) Section Outstanding Service Award for 'Extraordinary Dedication and Service to the Section'.

Professor Stewart Leech
Professor Stewart Leech

He has served on numerous committees internationally, and is currently joint Editor-in-Chief (with Professor Severin Grabski, Michigan State University) of the International Journal of Accounting Information Systems – one of the top two journals in the AIS field.

It is with great pride that we announce Professor Leech’s induction into the Accounting Hall of Fame in 2021, which recognises individuals whose achievements, both alone and in combination with others, have been significant, and whose impact on the discipline has been profound

Your recent projects have focused on business intelligence supporting and enhancing accounting. We often hear about technology ‘disrupting’ industries to challenge and improve, and provide new solutions. How much has technology propelled accounting practices, and how far into it are we now?

I would not say that technology has disrupted accounting but, rather, it is having a profound effect on accountants’ behaviours and how accountants work.

This is one of the exciting challenges for researchers in the field of accounting information systems – to understand the changing technological environment and the effect it is having on accountants and auditors’ behaviours and decision-making.

For example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems have had a significant effect on how accountants work. In many ways, they have changed the role of management accountants to become more of a business advisor to management. As we move from simple automation to hyper-automation and we add more capabilities for greater intelligence in business processes using, for example, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), advanced data analytics and process mining, we will see more and more change in the accountant’s function and the way accountants work.

Prof Stewart Leech with Unimelb Honours and PhD students
Professor Stewart Leech with some of his former honours and PhD students
You have been recognised for your outstanding research and teaching. What is it about each domain that you love, and how are they connected?

I love to investigate, explore and hopefully explain the likely effects of changing information technology on decision-making by accountants and auditors and on organizations. For 50 years, I have had a singular commitment to developing the AIS field. I hope that I have played some part in developing a foundation on which my younger colleagues can build.

It is a fast-changing world and information technology is critical to the future of the accounting discipline. For our students, it is important that they are well versed in current developments.

For our research, it is important that it is based on well-developed theory and rigorous testing of those theories with appropriate research methods; and importantly, what the implications for practice are.

One of the best aspects of undertaking relevant research is that it informs teaching. I have been able to use all my research in my teaching and this makes the subject matter much more interesting for the students.

I love to see students’ minds develop as they grapple with attempting to understand the theories, concepts and questions that we give them. It is wonderful to see students develop their intellect to a level that is better than one’s own. Some have become outstanding academics.

What led you to discover your passion for accounting?

I chose accounting at a very early age.  At school, my choice was the commercial subjects, including economics, over the science subjects, which naturally led me to a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Melbourne. Initially, I thought I would be an accountant in industry. After completing my BCom at Melbourne, I worked for a very short time as an accountant, but my heart was never in it.

Professor Stewart Leech and A/Prof Carlin Dowling
Prof Leech with A/Prof Carlin Dowling, who was one of his PhD students, and later on, colleague and co-researcher. They are pictured here during the International Symposium on Accounting Information Systems in the Department of Accounting at Melbourne, which they organised as co-chairs in 2012

When I was approached by one of the accounting academics at Melbourne to take tutorials, I grabbed the opportunity. I soon found something I loved doing - teaching, research, and all that goes with being an academic. In some ways, I think I was lucky – academia chose me rather than the other way around. I would not have changed any part of it for anything in the world. In the early days, I taught computer programming, and systems analysis and design to accounting students, and realised that there was no accounting software that would teach them the fundamentals of an accounting system. So, with the assistance of a computer programmer, I designed the first computer-based system to teach accounting. Along with accompanying textbook, the system has been used by numerous universities to teach students the use of accounting software.

My passion for accounting research (and in particular computer-based accounting systems) initially came from my involvement with my mentors and colleagues at the Universities of Melbourne and Tasmania; it continued with my co-researchers and involvement with like-minded colleagues in the AIS and SET Sections of the American Accounting Association.

Could you share with us some of your proudest achievements?

I guess I was one of the pioneers of using artificial intelligence (AI) in accounting research back in the 1980s, which followed on from my interest in decision support systems, financial modelling using computer-based systems and database management systems.

I introduced all these areas into my teaching – the courses were probably unique at the time – certainly the big accounting firms thought so, since I believe that was one of the attractions for the large number of our graduates that they recruited.

I initiated a research project, using AI software, to construct and test a model of the decision-making processes of insolvency/corporate recovery experts when dealing with companies in financial distress. I enlisted the assistance of an expert in AI from computer science and together, we built and validated the model with the help of numerous partners and managers from the major accounting and insolvency firms.

Professor Leech being presented with his 25 Years Certificate, Fellow Chartered Accountant, at the ICAA Victorian Division.
Prof Leech being presented with his 25 Years Certificate, Fellow Chartered Accountant, at the ICAA Victorian Division in 2013

The project then grew even larger when we teamed up with two colleagues from the USA to extend the research into using our system to examine the impact of AI systems on decision-making in accounting.

The research helped determine whether an intelligent decision aid can be used collaboratively by insolvency practitioners to overcome judgement bias and improve decision processes and/or outcomes.  The work has been ongoing for over 20 years, attracting prestigious research grants, and resulting in 17 published research papers and 48 presentations in Australia and internationally, with one of the papers awarded the Notable Contribution to the Accounting Information Systems Literature, in 2011, by the American Accounting Association.

If not accounting, what would you have done?

In my early life, I played drums, but at the time it did not seem to be a good career choice, despite the urgings of my drum teacher.  My parents wouldn’t hear of it! But I also loved economics. If not for accounting, I would have been an economist.