Skills & Content: Challenging the zero-sum mindset

Imagine an accountant. What comes to mind? Slightly, or not so slightly, nerdy? Wearing a pocket protector? Glasses? Holding a calculator? Lacking interpersonal skills?

nerd piggy bank 3d

Now consider the following quotes, from partners at CPA firms:

  • The accounting profession is a communication business.
  • The most serious deficiency I see in the new people coming into our firm is a lack of good verbal and written communication skills.
  • All other skills lose importance and usefulness when combined with poor communication skill.
  • Oral communication skills…are extremely important… More emphasis has to be given to this area in college courses.

Are you surprised to learn these statements were reported nearly 30 years ago in The CPA Journal (Hanson, 1987)?  The need for good communication skills is not confined to CPAs or accounting majors.  A 2015 article in Inside Higher Ed reported only 28% of employers think graduates are well prepared in oral communication (AAC&U survey of 400 firms). The accounting education literature refers to this problem as the expectations-performance gap. The gap persists for many reasons. Today’s post considers just one: misplaced priorities.

Very little accounting education research deals with oral communication in general, and fewer address interactive communication skills. A search of “teaching communication” in the Journal of Accounting Education (JoAE) yields 7 hits, all from the 1980s. In contrast, searching “teaching APB” in JoAE yields 38 hits, the first in 1983, the most recent in 2014. Similarly, searches on “teaching SFAS,” “teaching SAS,” and “teaching IFRS” generate 42, 91, and 30 hits, respectively, ranging from the 1980s to the present.  Technical content is a priority. That’s appropriate.

Clearly, programs and instruction should teach discipline-based knowledge and competencies, but not at the expense of interpersonal or learning skills. Technically proficient graduates lacking communication skills will face limited career prospects. Similarly, highly skilled communicators lacking disciplinary expertise will also experience difficulties in career advancement. Graduates in all majors, not just accounting, need both.

The gap’s persistence suggests the academy’s responses to the calls for instructional and curricular change to promote skills like interpersonal communication have been ineffective. Some programs respond by adding communications courses. Often, there is an emphasis on formal presentations, but few opportunities for students to practice interactive oral communication in the discipline. Perhaps most telling, very little accounting ed research addresses how to integrate content instruction with skills development. (The gap across majors suggests this isn’t just an accounting ed issue.)

One explanation may be that many in higher ed believe the fundamental goal of education is to provide students with sound technical competency and content knowledge; teaching skills isn’t important or appropriate (Blanthorne, Bhamornsiri, & Guinn, 2005 and St Pierre & Rebele, 2014 discuss this in the context of accounting). Collectively, the academy hasn’t demonstrated a commitment to developing skills. Taking that one step further, one can say teachers and programs promote technical competency at the expense of skills, as if teaching both is mutually exclusive or a zero-sum endeavor. It doesn’t have to be.

Educators and program leaders “need to find innovative ways to deliver on the demands of stakeholders if they wish to remain relevant and competitive and the providers of choice” (deVilliers, 2010, p. 11).  To close the expectations-performance gap, teachers and administrators need to “see some aspects of skills development as paralleling the needs of students’ intellectual development… In this light we need to see skills development not as something that can be ignored in the accounting curriculum, or seen as a ‘necessary evil’ forced on us by educational bureaucracy and the accounting profession, but an essential element of the path to providing a successful accounting education experience” (Stoner & Milner, 2010, p. 136). Although Stoner & Milner were writing about accounting education, their points apply broadly.  Skills should be an integral part of comprehensive education.

It’s time for teachers and administrators to initiate conversations about the expectations-performance gap. What skills do graduates need?  In what sequence of courses are they best developed (let’s coordinate skills education like we coordinate content)? What kinds of assignments and activities promote each skill (formal presentations are valuable, but they don’t achieve the same outcomes as other oral communication activities)?  How can skills be more fully integrated with discipline-based instruction and programming (instead of adding a few communication courses into the major)?

Promoting skills and content isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s time to revisit our instructional and programmatic priorities, because closing the expectations-performance gap is long overdue.


Blanthorne, C., Bhamornsiri, S., & Guinn, R.E. (2005). Are Technical Skills Still Important?: Certified Public Accountant. The CPA Journal, 75(3): 64-65.

Dow, K.J., & Feldman, D.A. (1994). Educating future CPAs: A survey of accounting professors. Massachusetts CPA Review, 68(1): 20-22.

Hanson, G.A. (1987). The Importance of Oral Communication in Accounting Practice: Certified Public Accountant. The CPA Journal, 57(12): 118-122.

Stoner, G. & Milner, M. (2010). Embedding Generic Employment Skills in an Accounting Degree: Development and Impediments. Accounting Education: an international journal, 19(1-2): 123-138.

St Pierre, E. K., & Rebele, J. E. (2014). An agenda for improving accounting education. In R. M. S. Wilson (Ed.), The Routledge companion to accounting education. Oxford: Routledge.

de Villiers, R. (2010). The incorporation of soft skills into accounting curricula: preparing accounting graduates for their unpredictable futures. Meditari Accountancy Research, 18(2): 1-22.



About Lolita Paff

Educator. Wife. Mother. Amateur chef. Wine lover.

Posted on March 31, 2016, in Learning, Professional Development, Students, Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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