Communication remains paramount in techno-driven business world

Given the ever changing landscape in the “real world” of business and accounting – a techno-driven, fast-paced environment where customers demand and expect information and services at the ready –

how is academia preparing tomorrow’s business leaders for the environment they are about to enter?

Patrick T. Kelly, Ph.D., Chairman of the Department of Accountancy at Providence College’s School of Business and Mary Ella Gainor, a long-time lecturer in the Accounting Department at Bryant University, who has years of experience in the private sector, discuss the journey from classroom to boardroom.

Both Kelly and Gainor see strong communication skills as critical to the success of an accountant. Mastering technical skill sets and constantly changing rules and regulations is important, but so too is the ability to explain that information to others in non-technical terms. 
What Counts: What kind of feedback do you receive from students, recent graduates, or other young professionals, that helps you shape your approach in the classroom?

Kelly: We are fortunate to have an Introduction to the Profession course that Accountancy majors take in the fall semester of junior year. Students hear from both senior and recent alumni about the wide variety of opportunities available for Accountancy graduates.  These include careers at large firms, regional firms, governmental organizations, nonprofit organizations, and finance firms. They receive guidance on early and longer term career success, along with advice on passing the challenging CPA exam. The demands of the profession shape our approach in the classroom where we focus on critical thinking abilities, communications skills, teamwork, and decision making, including making correct ethical decisions.  

Gainor: The most profound feedback I have received from students is that, as professors, we need to encourage students to be independent learners. One student felt that in college she did not master the skill of "learning how to learn." In the working world she is expected to tackle a project with minimal guidance, research the intricacies of the project, set a game-plan, and bring herself up to speed on associated knowledge areas that she is weak. Too often, students feel that professors are not doing their jobs if information is not being spoon-fed to them. In reality, faculty members are doing students a disservice if content is delivered via lecture without having to think through the material. 

WC: In general, has there been a tangible shift in recent years, in either approach or points of emphasis?

Kelly: Our program is constantly evolving, but it has a strong foundation. Providence College is a liberal arts college with an outstanding business program. Our Accountancy graduates earn a Bachelor of Science degree and all of our students receive a technical and well-rounded education that makes them very attractive to employers. Our recently redesigned core curriculum provides increased focus on writing, speaking, civic engagement, and diversity.  

Gainor: I would say the major shift has been to make class time more interactive and experiential in nature. Rather than faculty simply lecturing during class and having students regurgitate the information on exams, students are acquiring basic knowledge prior to class by reading and/or watching video lectures. This way they are able to come to class ready to work interactively within teams or participate in a discussion by applying critical thinking. 
WC: What are a couple of the most important messages you hope to deliver to your students as they begin their professional journey?

Kelly: A majority of our students will begin their careers in public accounting and pass the CPA exam. Some will choose to remain in public accounting for long and successful careers, while others will pursue accounting, finance, and other opportunities in a diverse range of businesses, governmental organizations, nonprofit organizations, etc. Our goal is to ensure that they have meaningful and productive careers in whatever paths they choose.

Gainor: Anything can be accomplished with a strong work ethic. You have to be willing to immerse yourself into your career in order to progress and advance. Never stop learning. Graduation from college should be the start of your learning process. As a professor, I frequently ask to teach courses that I have not taught. It keeps my mind sharp and being in the learning mode, although a lot of work, it is a very humbling experience. 

WC: What technical skills have long been critical, and remain so today?

Kelly: Accounting students have always needed strong skills in critical thinking, oral and written communications, teamwork, and decision making, including ethical decision making.  

Gainor: Communication skills are essential -- both verbal and written. From an accounting perspective, it is important to understand the rules, the process of applying the rules, and the result of the process. More importantly, it is critical to be able to communicate these results to lay people in a clear and non-technical manner. Students must practice communication skills daily using something other than texting.  They must use proper punctuation, spelling, salutations, and be professional in their communication process. Ultimately, if a student spends the time to prepare a spreadsheet with formulas, etc., they will be more productive in the long run. 
WC: Have you seen any change in terms of students' preference for pursuing public accounting versus the private industry?  

Kelly: As noted above, most of our students will start their careers in public accounting.  In our Introduction to the Profession course students hear about the private industry careers and many choose to pursue such opportunities in the future.  

Gainor: In general, students seem to gravitate toward public accounting because of the thought that this initial direction will open up opportunities for additional career paths in the future. I think, as educators, we need to do a better job of informing students of accounting opportunities other than public accounting.