My favorite team, the Baltimore Orioles, just introduced their new executive vice president and general manager, Mike Elias, a Yale grad who is known as an analytics expert who has been helpful in rebuilding the Houston Astros. There is general agreement that he is a timely hire, and Baltimore fans on social media seem very supportive. A team once known for the “Oriole Way,” a commitment to excellence and professionalism characterized by unselfishness even among its star players, is joining the modern world of excellence through explicit calculation.
One of the most interesting articles I have read in recent years was an interview by Sports Illustrated writer and author of Astroball, Ben Reiter, of a former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director and analytics expert, Chris Correa. Correa went to federal prison for a widely reported breach of the Astros’ database that gave the Cardinals a clear competitive advantage in understanding the Astros’ evaluation of players. In that article Correa stated that while he initially saw his hacking as no different than stealing signs in baseball, he, in his words, eventually “. . . recognized how essentially disrespectful my behavior was of the people whose privacy I violated.”
The term “analytics” possesses a sense of cold objectivity that makes ethics unnecessary. Truth is truth, science is science, facts are facts. Of course, there is some subjectivity in how analytics are interpreted or generalized to others. But there is a heartlessness, a Darwinian ruthlessness that suggests that analytics are synonymous with value. This is much the same tone expressed by investment banks and Wall Street analysts in valuing companies and their management teams. When I teach executive education sessions, I realize that the financial leaders of public companies are driven by this unrelenting pressure to meet performance standards evaluated by quarterly measurements. It is entirely predictable what the analytics (and the analysts) will say, so C-suite executives have incentives to characterize things a certain way. Today, the machine is the market, and its judgment is pitiless.
Analytics is also the basis for most of baseball strategy in major league organizations now, from scouting young players to determining defensive shifts during the game for particular hitters. The Orioles are certainly late adopters when it comes to analytics, and many have blamed the collapse of the team’s performance on a series of poor, ill-informed management decisions that relied too much on instincts, and occasionally on emotion. What is ironic is that the Orioles did this while simultaneously maintaining what is thought to be the most aggressive medical evaluations of players they considered trading for or signing as free agents.
Data analytics is quickly becoming central to the accounting profession, and to the careers of the young CPAs I prepare. We are revamping courses and offering new courses that target the analytic and coding skill sets necessary to succeed in financial roles in organizations. We are leveraging powerful technologies that can potentially improve the quality and efficiency of audits, reduce errors in reporting and decision making, and improve the quality of consulting advice. It is no longer a question of whether we should prepare students for a data analytics world; it is how to stay ahead of the learning curve without just teaching specific software that may be irrelevant within three years.
My fear for my profession is that we will become simply practitioners of the head, and not of the heart. One of the core characteristics of the accounting profession is a hardheaded dedication to the truth, which seems entirely aligned with analytics. Analytics provide us more insight into what is truly going on economically within an organization. I embrace their ability to make us better practitioners.
But what a data-driven new reality can never give us is a heart commitment to the importance of seeking truth as an ethical value, or a moral duty to uphold truth in order to protect the public. This has always been the core of the accounting profession, but it is being commoditized away in a number of ways. CPAs will get richer using their analytical skills to increase clients’ wealth than they will making sure clients tell the truth. And what we should expect to see in an analytics world is consulting fees dominating audit and tax services in public accounting firms.
It is not surprising that regulators in the UK today, and in the U.S. 16 years ago, have wrestled with what to do about this reality. It is not an intractable problem, and I am not suggesting the sky is falling. But while I am giving my students the analytics necessary to make them competitive in the marketplace, I hope I can provide them with context.
It is not just calculated value that matters; truth and duty are important, too. A failure of the head when it comes to analytics may cause you to lose a client, or a job. But, as Chris Correa can attest, a failure of the heart may cause you to lose your soul.
And, in the end, the accounting profession will become irrelevant not because it is insufficiently analytical, but because it is insufficiently committed to revealing – and holding people accountable to – the truth.