July 2003

Keeping Up with Information Technology

By Thomas E. McKee and Marilyn Greenstein

The rapid pace of technological developments in business can make it difficult for most individuals to keep current. The authors identified 36 separate technologies important in the current business environment. They surveyed accountants’ knowledge of the applications and uses of these technologies. Based on their survey results, they offer suggestions for ways to keep abreast of cutting-edge technologies through further education and professional development.

In reviewing a wide variety of sources to identify information technology skills that an accountant might find useful, the authors identified 36 specific information technologies (see Exhibit 1). Several of these technologies are interrelated or incorporate the same functions, so the list does not enumerate completely distinct technologies, but the items are generally distinct enough to be listed separately.

National Survey

The authors sent a pretested questionnaire incorporating the 36 information technologies to 1,000 audit practitioners in 2000. The sample was selected from the AICPA’s database of accountants from auditing, internal auditing, and governmental auditing classifications. To ensure adequate gender coverage, the sample was selected with a 50–50 split between males and females. The usable response rate was 24.7%. Approximately 60% of the respondents were female and 40% were male. Although respondents’ ages and experience levels varied widely, the average experience level was 17 years (see Exhibit 2).

Respondents were asked to indicate whether the firm for which they work performs traditional audits. Their responses indicate that 42% work for firms that perform traditional audits. Of that 42%, 51% of respondents were at the partner level and 23% were at the manager level, thus indicating a high level of expertise in their respective areas. The questionnaire asked respondents to rank their own knowledge of the 36 information technologies on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 indicated no knowledge of the topic and 7 indicated expert knowledge of the topic.

How Knowledgeable Are Accountants?

A statistically significant greater proportion of respondents rated their knowledge of technology in the lower half of the response range. The authors believe it is fair to say that many of the respondents do not perceive themselves as possessing high levels of knowledge about current information technologies. Individuals working for traditional audit firms report statistically significantly higher scores for the following technologies:

Gender differences. Gender appears to be a significant factor in reported knowledge levels for practitioners. Somewhat surprisingly, male respondents scored statistically higher on 20 out of 36 technologies. Even after controlling for experience, gender was still significant for 16 of the 36 technologies.

Because of the questionnaire’s design, determining whether actual knowledge by males of the technologies was in fact higher, or whether response differences were due to other factors such as self-confidence in that knowledge, is impossible to discern. The literature on gender differences in self-ratings is very mixed. Some researchers believe there are no significant differences in self-ratings between male and females, yet other researchers find that male self-evaluations tend to be higher than their female counterparts. Further research in this area to examine actual skill levels of female and male accountants, as well as the professional development programs assigned to them within their firms, would be necessary to resolve this issue.

Educational options. The questionnaire asked respondents to indicate, “Where is the single best place to initially learn each of the 36 technologies?” Their answer choices were:

Respondents indicated that, for 23 of the 36 technologies, they favored learning the technology either before or during college rather than during practice. The six technologies that practitioners were more likely to favor initially learning about during accounting practice are:

CPAs that contemplate taking CPE, and organizations that offer CPE, might be interested in which technologies the respondents were most interested in. The practitioners indicated they would most like to know more about the following:

Interpreting the Survey

Respondents in this study self-reported their views about their own information technology knowledge. Their actual knowledge may be higher or lower than what they reported. Because the number of female respondents for the practitioners was proportionally higher than the 50-50 sample, the results may be influenced by their lower self-ratings than males for 20 of the 36 technologies.

A large number of professionals indicate either no knowledge or low knowledge of some of today’s critical business technologies, such as wireless communications, software security tools, network configurations, and workflow technology. This low knowledge level can be remedied by the profession or firms offering appropriate professional development opportunities for these technologies.

Respondents’ identification of the technologies they would most like to know more about could be interpreted as an assessment of the perceived relevance of these technologies for education. Interestingly, none of the IT skills for which practitioners scored the lowest made it to this list, such as external network configurations, user authentication systems, intrusion detection and monitoring, and encryption software. This may indicate that so little is known about these IT skills that practitioners do not yet fully understand their relevance.

An important objective of this survey was to initiate discussion, debate, and action leading to positive changes in the information technology education as it moves forward in today’s technology-intensive environment. The authors hope that the results will help initiate practitioner development efforts and increase the focus on crucial IT skills.

Thomas E. McKee, PhD, CMA, CIA, CPA, is a professor of accountancy at East Tennessee State University, Johnson City.
Marilyn Greenstein, PhD, is an associate professor of accountancy at Arizona State University–West, Phoenix.

Robert H. Colson, PhD, CPA
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