Should Oxford Dictionary change the definition of an accountant? 

How would you define your role as an accountant?

Earlier this year, accounting software specialists Xero, started an online petition to change the Oxford English Dictionary definition of an accountant. Currently the role is defined as ‘a person whose job it is to keep or inspect financial accounts’ Xero believe this should change to ‘a person whose job it is to keep or inspect and advise on financial accounts’.

Xero’s managing director Gary Turner said in an open letter to the dictionary: “Today, an accountant doesn’t just crunch the numbers and observe financial operations, but so much more.”

So would a change in wording reflect better what accountants do these days? Is accountancy unfairly seen as simply, number crunching? And is the definition so out of date that it might put off others from joining the profession?

Is the TV to blame?

Mike Warburton has spent most of his career as an accountant, specialising in tax. A regular on television, radio and in the newspapers, the former Grant Thornton tax partner rails against any conception that the role of an accountant is simply to look after a business’ accounts as per the dictionary description.

Warburton blames Monty Python for the image of accountancy as being boring. “In the lion tamer sketch, accountancy is mocked as being dull and that image has prevailed. But it’s unfair: my career has been varied and exciting and anything but dull.”

In the famous sketch John Cleese is a career counsellor and Michael Palin is Mr Anchovy, who wants to switch from his job as an accountant to a lion tamer because his work is ‘dull, dull, dull’.

Cleese tells him that accountancy suits him because “our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.”

Warburton, 71, however says that accountancy is an exciting career and one that can lead in many directions.

“A large part of British commerce and industry is run by accountants” he says. “I chose to be a tax accountant because I liked talking to clients about saving tax, something they really appreciated. My career as an accountant does not fit the current dictionary definition at all.

“Accountancy is a great career; one that offers so much variety. You can choose which routes you take – your qualifications can take you so many places. Over the course of my career I’ve done lots of radio, television and media work and public speaking. I’ve also been an expert witness in court cases. Accountancy opens so many doors: it is not simply doing the books’.

A younger perspective

While Warburton can look back over a long career, Farid Gasanov MAAT, is 29. An accountant with Q Accountants, his passion for maths and desire to have a career, which involved helping people, propelled him towards accountancy.

He has a 21st century take on what the dictionary definition of an accountant should be.

“An accountant is someone who makes sure the client’s business is compliant from financial reporting and taxation point of view. They spot trends in the industry which affect business growth and advise on these using the most advanced technologies available.”

And he adds: “An accountant is someone who has insight into the client’s business, which is particularly important for small businesses. It’s vital to speak the right language so you can relay the figures in such a way that clients can understand them and use that knowledge to grow their business.”

A better definition?

Indeed a survey by emolument accountancy ranked as the fifth most boring job, with 67% of those surveyed saying it was dull (the most boring profession was legal jobs, with 81%).

James Brent, business director at recruitment firm Hays Accountancy & Finance says that accountancy has changed.

“I think the dictionary definition of an accountant is limiting and whilst it’s unlikely to deter anyone from a career in accountancy, there is certainly room for a more modern definition. The role of the accountant has undoubtedly changed over the years and accountants now play much more of a business advisory role.”

And he adds: “An accountant’s role is so much more than just reviewing spreadsheets. The most successful accountants will possess the ability to communicate with peers, customers, external business partners and investors alike, coupled with an acute eye for detail and key technical accounting knowledge.”

What’s more, Brent says that the definition of accountancy will change as our society and ways of working progress.

He adds: “As advances in technology progress such as cloud based software, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), the role of an accountant will undoubtedly continue to change.

“However, while robots and AI may have the potential to add speed and efficiency to the profession, ultimately it will still be human accountants who will add the commercial nous and insight that the smartest of technologies cannot rival.”

So, regardless of whatever definition there is of the accountancy profession, it will evolve and adapt to new challenges: a long way from the desk-bound, number-crunching role suggested by the dictionary.

Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.

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