Despite surface impressions, the field of accounting requires an underestimated amount of background knowledge and communication. Based on what I’ve been able to gather with almost two years of being in the accounting program at BYU, I’ve decided that the following will address the importance of understanding the history of accounting – supplemented with a few historical examples and the importance of communicating effectively within the field – broken in to two different contexts. Though these topics create a list that is far from an exhaustive description of the important forms of communication, I believe them to be critical based on my interactions with accounting professors and an internship with the nation’s top accounting firm, PwC.
History of Accounting
|The tablet above holds accounting |
information dated as far back as 3200 BC
Of all the things humanity has created – arts, theatre, technology, medicine – keeping track of money/valuables is one of the oldest. Even back to the days of the flood, Noah was instructed to take an accounting of the Lord’s valuables (His creations, the animals). Down through Moses we have records of accounting (i.e. the entire book of Numbers). Trade records and bartering systems were all accounted for and assessed, if not on a social level then on an individual one. Men have always been trying to be richer than his neighbor. And how does he know he’s rich? He accounts for what he and his neighbor have. In ancient Greece, officers were required to give accountings of the fund entrusted to them at the conclusion of their service. They were expected to properly manage the funds that had been given them. The importance of wealth and stewardship were not lost on the Greek and so they were sure to require an accounting of those who had been given so much. In ancient Rome, accounting played a particularly important role in leading the home. Fathers were expected to keep track of the accounts of the household. Fortunately, the lack of credit cards and predating of shopping malls made monitoring teenage spending significantly easier. Most purchasers were made with cash; however, there are clear indication that receivables and payables were set up with merchants and customers. As time lapsed into the medieval ages, we see an apparent retrogression of the accounting systems however apparently “Charlemagne had an elaborate system of accounting for income and expenditures and required detailed reports from all his subordinates.” (Kester, 1917)
Accounting has been formalized and structured over the centuries. In fact, in a more recent vein, the reliance on the way we account for things has a tremendous impact on everyone’s daily life. The value we give to different currency; the price floors and ceilings that certain markets and commodities bear; and the amount of money we pay in taxes each year all depend how we account for our money. On a nationwide scale, the most significant change to the accounting system in recent history is the Sarbanes-Oxley act passed in the wake of the Enron/Arthur Anderson debacle (Koehn and Stephen, 2004). This act revamped the way big businesses are allowed to account for their money. How does this affect the average consumer? Corporation now have to pay significantly more to have their accounts managed, these types of costs are always passed on to the consumer.
Accounting has been around a long time, and will be around forever. At the very least, men and women will always be required to give an accounting of the labors, which very well may include how we spend our money/substance.
Communication in Accounting
Two man avenues of communication exist in the accounting field. The first is internal with our fellow employees and managers. The second is with the customer or other external entities.
Like the ever-ticking hands of an ornate grandfather clock, the world of business clicks on at an undeviating and unrelenting pace. Only the most competent and most exact companies survive the grueling grind of the free market. This medium of exchange, for innumerable vendors and consumers, demands specific type of communication -- a communication that one only understands by understanding the nature of business itself. This nature has two underlying fundamental principles that drive everything in the world of industry – efficiency and accuracy. Companies must produce every product and every service on time and to proper specification. Therefore, essentially all material communication works to meet those ends.
For example, when management decisions are being made, a team of executives will gather to discuss the issue. They do not mince words and do not particularly care about how they come across to their peers. They all have one goal in mind, discus the facts and reach the best conclusion for the company. A high-performing, management team will set aside egos, pride, and pleasantries, to optimize the efficiency and accuracy of their communication.
Among the biggest firms, clients will need to pay an average of $300 dollars an hour for accounting services. For clients that have large tax returns, which are literally one and a half feet tall when everything is printed out and stacked together, the firm can receive into the hundreds of thousands in revenue. Naturally, these clients have tremendous leverage over the firm in the sense that they can easily take their business to another firm if the previous does not meet their expectations. This bargaining power engenders tremendous focus on positive, client relationships. The firm will do everything they can to ensure that they maintain a healthy association with all of their clients – especially large ones. The following fictitious story illustrates the need for respectful and tactful but effective communication.
Michael the a tax manager for PricewaterhouseCoopers has longer had the Walt Disney Corporation assigned to him to ensure that their corporate tax returns are always filed on time and accurately. Michael thoroughly enjoys working with Disney as they almost never have any issues with how they have classified and reported their income. This proficiency means that despite Disney’s extraordinary size, filling out the tax returns is not overly complex. However, Michael is a diligent employee and always double checks.
On one unfortunate day he discovers an error – a gross error—an error of such blatant magnitude and nature that it would have unlikely been missed by the usually meticulous Disney tax preparers. Perplexed, Michael sends a quick email to his contact at Disney inquiring about the discrepancy. He receives a reply in a uncharacteristically short period of time that indicated he should not worry about the supposed error because it is not an error due to xyz explanation. This made Michael even more concerned. Not only would such an inquiry much more time to investigate than Disney took to respond, very suspicious, but also the explanation made no sense. Michael drafted another email that explained the error and politely elaborated on the proper solution. Again, Disney responded quickly and tersely. They adamantly reaffirmed their position and offered no further explanation. Michael knew he would need more authority in his next correspondence. He called an IRS hotline, available exclusively to the top accounting firms, received congruent advice. He the drafted the following email:
Thank you very much for your prompt correspondence over the last few weeks. I am again writing regarding the allocation of income discussed in previous emails. I apologize for any annoyance caused by my persistence on this matter. I assure you my sole concern is to ensure that Disney avoids any penalties associated with inaccurate filling.
Regarding, the allocation of interest income generated by off-shore, related entities – specifically those related to Disney Cruise Lines must be reported as ordinary income. The internal revenue code very clearly states that all revenues received for engaging in the normal course of business must be classified as ordinary income not income received from capital gains despite the fact that Disney Cruise Lines is a capital investment that exists independent of The Disney Corporation. Furthermore, I called the IRS to receive further clarification about the proper allocation of this income and they confirmed the above opinion.
We cannot sign the return until the income has been reclassified. We are very grateful for your understanding and again apologize for any inconvenience caused.
Michael the Manager
The above scenario illustrates the need for tactful and courteous communication. Had Michael handled the situation poorly, he would have risked losing one of the firm’s biggest clients. Fortunately, it was handled well because Michael remained polite and unassuming. Though it seemed very suspicious that such an experienced firm should make such an egregious error and not fix it, Michael did not make an assumptions or accusations. Instead, he calmly investigated the matter and presented his case to the extent that either Disney would have to file a return without PwC and likely receive a penalty, or they could change the way they classified their income. Respectful style and appropriate delivery are paramount.
Accountants are always looking for new and more creative ways of saving their company and clients’ money. When we understand the importance of the history of accounting, we will be far less susceptible making the same mistakes. After all, a creative form of accounting caused the largest business scandal in recent history. Furthermore, the need for appropriate communication is constant. Accountants cannot succeed in their field without understand how to express themselves in the varying situations that they will encounter.