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Why accountants are poised to take lead data-governance roles

The enormous and ever-growing collection of numbers, images and other sources of data has the potential for positive change, but if used maliciously by bad actors, could cause great harm for individuals and society at large, writes Tashia Batstone, senior vice-president, external relations and business development at CPA Canada.

Every second of every day, on factory floors and in offices, down in the streets and from the skies above, a vast array of technologies collects and creates data.

Harnessing and realising the full potential of data is one of the pivotal challenges of our time and a key focus of Foresight: Reimagining the Profession, an ambitious consultation effort spearheaded by Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA Canada) to help define the profession’s future.

During the second half of 2018, CPA Canada gathered a select group of its members and outside experts to discuss how best to prepare for the future in today’s ever-evolving global economy. Building on those initial discussions, Phase 2 is now underway, and has established a governance model and targeted workstreams focusing on the role of the profession in value creation and data governance. 

Our work on Foresight highlighted that the world is moving to an economy driven by technology and data. In response to the changing environment, the accounting profession needs to consider its role in helping to ensure data is high quality, fit for purpose and can be trusted to guide effective decision-making. With our experience in providing financial information that is reliable and useful, CPAs are uniquely positioned to take on these new roles. 

Of critical importance will be the development of data governance standards of practice. The integrity of data depends on appropriate data governance standards, which will ensure the data is valid, reliable and trustworthy. The development of appropriate standards of practice for data is vital because this will allow decision-makers to make informed decisions and drive success. For this work, the profession’s leadership in developing accounting and assurance standards provides it with knowledge and experience that translates well into developing new data governance standards.

Harnessing Potential

To fully exploit the potential of data, standards will be needed for data valuation, its collection and grading, access and sharing protocols, as well as related analytics and solution development strategies. Various Canadian standard-setters, such as the Standards Council of Canada and the Canadian Standards Association, along with their international counterparts, are already exploring these areas

However, data-related standards are not enough alone. To truly take advantage of the information age, organisations are going to need highly skilled professionals who are immersed in data governance. Increasingly, that role is being taken by chief data officers (CDOs). Not to be confused with chief information officers, who oversee IT software, hardware and related projects, CDOs require financial, technical and analytical skills. They also must be able to understand and navigate the increasingly complex web of legal, regulatory and ethical requirements surrounding the collection and use of many different types of data.

As trained professionals with expertise and experience in the realms of collecting, analysing and developing strategies based on financial data, accountants are already very well positioned to fill the CDO role. However, the profession needs to recognise that the accountant’s toolkit will need to be updated to ensure we have the skills and competencies necessary to help organisations unlock the tremendous potential associated with leveraging data-driven decision-making in their day-to-day business. 

In Canada, the Chartered Professional Accountant education programme’s competency map was recently updated to enhance its focus on technology, including data analytics. This will help ensure that the next generation of Canadian CPAs will adapt smoothly to data-rich workplaces. In addition, our continuing education training will need to develop training to assist current CPAs to develop the skills and competencies needed to embrace these new roles. 

But the accounting profession cannot do this alone. While there are enormous benefits in moving to a data-driven economy, there is no avoiding issues that will inevitably arise such as privacy, security and ownership of data. To meet the broad requirements of the greater public interest, accountants will need to work with a range of private and public sector organisations, including various levels of government and regulators, to ensure the benefits of the new information age are shared widely and fairly. 

As part of this effort, CPA Canada wants input from the international accountancy community. We want accountants everywhere to read and share The Way Forward information, and join our online platform to take part in the wider discussion. We all have a stake in our profession’s future. 

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