By V Pattabhi Ram and Mithun D’Souza
“Tax as a profession has no future,” said Jerry participating in a corporate training program. TP smiled. One of India’s foremost tax professionals he had made a bundle out of tax practice and now a software rookie was giving him the pink slip.
“Why,” asked TP. “Because”, said Jerry, “we, at Microsoft, are working on a tax software that would help everyone prepare his tax return without the help of the accountant.” “So?” asked TP. “So”, said Jerry, “your profession is on its way out.” There was that boyish enthusiasm in his tone that suggested a David’s victory over a Goliath.
TP rose to his full height. He had a healthy respect for the techs but he also knew when to guard his territory. “Okay folks,” he said. “Let me take you back in time. Twenty years ago, the first question that used to be asked in interviews of an accountant was “Can you tally the trial balance in one shot?” Today, thanks to Tally, no one asks that question. But has that made the accountant dead as a dodo?”
Smita, a young CA, remembered what her dad said when she was a kid. That during his Articleship days he used to be given a telephone directory to add up numbers manually so as to perfect his skills in totaling. That he used to spend sleepless hours trying to locate errors and tally the books of accounts. She had once overheard her dad’s friend remark “this is why accountants bald fast”. And her dad had responded, “If you went bald from the front you are considered sexy. If you went bald from the behind you are considered wise”. And his friend had asked tongue firmly in cheek, “What if you went bald from both ends?”
“Sir,” Smita said, addressing TP. “Tally has not made the accountant redundant. In fact, it has released him from back-breaking routine to more esoteric role play.” A young tech suggested that she explain. “Traditionally, accountants have been viewed as ‘bean counters’ and ‘number crunchers’” said Smita. “However, today the accountant has moved over to the position of providing value added service to the organization. This is a far cry from the time when transaction processing, cost accounting and financial reporting were seen as necessary for, but not really essential to, the smooth functioning of a company. Because of the dynamics of today’s business environment, the accountant is expected to ‘wear many hats’ now.” Even the techs clapped.
TP took over. “Those who argue that the ‘pie is fixed’ will assume that the accounting software makes the accountant redundant. We must realize that, people and not computers, do accounting. True, computers add numbers very quickly, and enable you to enter the number into the system once for it to appear in all journals, ledgers and other reports. However, a human being has to decide where to enter that information and then to keep the data in the system. Someone in the organization still has to understand debits and credits, decide what account code to charge each transaction to, determine whether an error has been made and, if so, how to correct that error. So, computerizing the accounting function does not automatically lead to obsolescence of the accountant. Software cannot replace human beings. It can only assist in processing data mechanically”. QED.
This was a big hit to Jerry’s ego. Team Leader of Project Tax, he wasn’t willing to let go without a fight. “All this sounds good for arguing. But, take a practical look. My uncle who is a trader just picked up a pirated version of Tally. He says, accounting has become so easy that he can now sack his accountant and do the work himself.”
Smita decided to defend her tribe. “Critical to the utility of any accounting software would be the accounting expertise of people who feed in data. A mess put in to the computer can be worse than a mess on ledger paper. Accuracy and efficiency of the accounting function will depend on the accuracy and quality of the data input. Thus the accountant’s professional skill and judgment will be essential even in case of highly sophisticated customized software including ERP software”.
TP decided to speak to Jerry in a language he presumed Jerry understood best. “Look, there is a difference between a rookie writing a program using a programming software and a tech writing a programming software”.
As Jerry thought about how to respond, Smita said, “The language of accounting measures the past, but value creation is a function of the future. Accounting information on a real time basis will enable businesses to produce reliable financial statements instantly facilitating decision-making. Automation speeds up the process”. As the crowd cheered, TP concluded, “Just as accounting software have not made the accountants redundant, tax software too will not make the tax professionals redundant. Instead, it will provide them will tools to be much more professionally effective. Try as hard as he might Bill Gates will not be able to gobble up the Chief Tax Officer.”
Someone from the rear remarked, “The arrival of CAD has not removed Drawing as a subject from engineering classes. The arrival of CAAT hasn’t removed the importance of auditing in chartered accountancy. The Internet has not sent the medical doctor packing. The arrival of dialogue writing software and story writing software has not removed the importance of the script- writer and the storyteller in movies. It has only enhanced his role. Music software hasn’t meant the end of musicians; it has only made them sing better.”
Even TP smiled. And so did Jerry.