How accountants shape society

Historic lecture series hosted by CPA Australia and the University of Melbourne addresses the far-reaching and surprising impacts accountants have on the world.

On Wednesday evening, 26 September, Professor Gary Biddle of the University’s Department of Accounting, gave the 79th Annual University of Melbourne-CPA Australia Research Lecture, the oldest continuous lecture series in the University’s Calendar and the world’s longest-running lecture in the accounting discipline.

The lecture, entitled Account Ability focused on the major role played by accountants in the development of ancient and modern, commencing with the Sumerians 4,500 years ago whose commercial activities were facilitated by records kept on clay bricks and tablets which could be fired to create permanent records.

Professor Biddle then fast-forwarded to the renaissance period, the description of double-entry bookkeeping by Luca Pacioli, which went ‘viral’ through the development of the printing press, became a key element of commercial education and an important contributor to the subsequent industrial revolution.

The more-recent IT revolution was driven in no small part by the demands of accounting, particularly in regard to the management of large data bases and the provision of real-time performance measures.

These developments have created both an enormous worldwide accounting industry – the Big 4 alone employ almost one million people – and an ongoing need for research into matters such as how equity values are influenced by corporate governance, accounting standards and audit quality.

Further illustrating the scope of accounting research, Professor Biddle summarised published work by himself and co-authors, encompassing auditors’ decision-biases, tax savings from optimal inventory policies, cost allocations, audit sampling, and the influence of reporting requirements on stock exchange listing choices.

Professor Biddle went on to address the urgent challenges requiring research including identifying and measuring intangible assets, which he described as the accounting equivalent of physicists’ ‘dark matter’.

In his concluding comments Professor Biddle contested the notion that the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will see the ‘end of accounting’. Rather, he said AI is a tool, requiring humans to ‘choose, evaluate, interpret and communicate what AI is doing and saying, using credible assurance processes’. For these phenomena, ‘accountants are the adults in the room’, continuing their historic role in the advancement of civilisation.