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ACCOUNTING INFORMATION SYSTEMS: A DATABASE APPROACH by: Uday S. Murthy, Ph.D., ACA and S. Michael Groomer, Ph.D., CPA, CISA

 

Introduction

Learning Objectives

After studying this chapter you should be able to:

• discuss the impact of the information revolution on the accounting function • explain the purpose of accounting and the role of the accounting professional

in organizations • describe the information customers served by accounting • describe the traditional accounting model and the manual accounting process

and the drawbacks of this traditional view • indicate the process of computerized bookkeeping and its advantages and

limitations • explain in general terms the database approach to satisfying accounting

information and the advantages of the database approach • discuss concepts of events orientation and the enterprise repository • describe the roles that the future accounting professional can play

 

The business world and society in general are undergoing phenomenal and sometimes turbulent change. The “new economy” driven by the Internet has seen the rise of entirely new businesses like Amazon.com, Yahoo, eBay, and of course Google. Most traditional “bricks and mortar” businesses have been forced to transform themselves into some form of an “e-business” simply to survive in this new era. The old cliché, that the only constant in business is change, is still true except that changes occur at “Internet speed.” Information technology is at the core of these radical Internet-driven changes. What implications does the “new economy” have for accounting? Whether in an “old economy” business or a “new economy” business, accounting information is intrinsic in most business processes. All businesses must still capture, process, store, and report accounting and other information about business processes to assess performance.

Beginning in the mid-1950’s, the developed countries moved from being primarily industrial oriented societies to information oriented societies. Currently, a significant percentage of the jobs in many of the developed countries focus on some aspect of the management of information rather than the production of goods. We are indeed in an “information age.” Advances in information technology lie at the heart of these colossal changes. The information superhighway, once merely a buzzword, is now very much a

 

 

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reality as is evident in the delivery of this “textbook.” As a future accounting professional you stand at the threshold of a potential revolution in accounting. The forces of information technology continue to produce dramatic changes. However, to fully harness the power of information technology, we must cast away our centuries-old notion of what accounting and accountants are all about. If we do not, we stand the risk of being cast aside as impediments to progress in the new information age. The fundamental question is this: will the accounting professional in the 21st century be the main “information provider” in an organization? Or will that role be fulfilled by some other professional, perhaps an “information systems” professional?

In this introduction, we will first discuss the why organizations exist and the role of accounting in organizations. We will then briefly review the traditional accounting model. Although this traditional view is probably still held by many, there are growing signs that its demise is imminent. We then present a more modern view of accounting—as a system for capturing all relevant information about business processes and storing it in one integrated repository. This organizational repository stores a multitude of financial and non-financial information about the significant events occurring within the business. The role of the accounting professional is in deciding:

• which events to capture data about, • what data relating to each event should be captured, • how that data is to be captured while preventing input errors, • how the data should be stored to optimize its usability while maintaining its

integrity, and • how meaningful reports can be generated on demand in real-time.

The traditional “bookkeeping” view of accounting is thrown by the wayside. In the new view, the accountant’s focus is on the design, control, and use of the enterprise-wide repository of data. The ultimate goal is for the accounting professional to serve as the provider of information within the organization. A little later, and in the chapters to come, we will discuss details about exactly what the design, control, and use of the enterprise repository entails.

Organizations and the role accounting Why do organizations exist? Think about the organizations you have been and are currently associated with—the university you attend, student organizations you belong to, the business you work for. Every organization, including for-profit businesses and not-for-profit organizations, was started with the objective of adding value for those who belong to it and/or interact with it. Organizations that do not add value cannot survive in the long term. A university providing education in exchange for tuition provides value. A business providing needed goods and services provides value. Virtually all organizations that survive in the long term have clearly stated goals and objectives that in some way speak to “value adding activities” involving the organization.

 

 

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Organizational leaders and managers need information about its value adding activities as a basis for determining whether the organization is achieving its goals. Given that even non-profit organizations incur costs, an essential aspect of running an organization and ensuring its long term survival involves recording, tracking, and reporting information about both value adding activities and cost incurring activities. As you undoubtedly have guessed, this information about organizational value adding and cost incurring activities is the domain of the accounting function in the organization.

In business organizations, the role of accounting has always been to provide information useful for decision making. In business organizations, the information provided by the accounting function is typically used to make economic decisions as they relate to the “value adding” activities for the organization. Information about sales revenues, purchases of materials, wages and salaries paid to employees are all examples of accounting information useful for making economic decisions about what to buy and sell, etc. Accounting involves processing raw data in some manner to convert it into information that must then be communicated to interested parties. In essence, accounting can be viewed as a system of communicating information. In its most general sense, a system accepts inputs, performs some processing, and generates meaningful outputs. Accounting takes business transactions as data inputs and ultimately generates a variety of financial reports as information outputs.

This view of accounting, as a system that converts transaction data into useful financial reports, says nothing about the methodology of accounting. Your exposure to accounting through the courses you have taken to date have probably led you to think about debits and credits and the double-entry accounting model when you think about “accounting.” Although the double-entry accounting system developed by the Franciscan monk Luca Pacioli in 1494 has stood the test of time, its utility is increasingly being questioned. The double-entry accounting model focuses exclusively on the financial and most easily measurable aspect of transactions, that is, the monetary amount involved. However, given the broader definition of accounting—as a system to provide information useful for decision making—it is easy to see that the double-entry model can fall short of completely meeting the needs of users. We will discuss the limitations of the traditional accounting model a little later in this chapter. The users of accounting information can be considered “information customers.” To understand the various kinds of information output that can be generated by the accounting system let us first examine the many information customers served by accounting.

Information Customers Information customers are either internal or external. Internal information customers, within the organization, would include employees at all levels from top management to the lowest level worker who has a legitimate need for information. The overriding criterion in deciding whether to satisfy an internal request for information is cost-benefit. If the benefits of producing information outweigh the costs of producing that information, then it would be advantageous to make that information available to the user. Meeting internal information needs has been the domain of management accounting or

 

 

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managerial accounting. Activities such as budgeting, cost-volume-profit analysis, variance analysis, and product costing are some examples of management accounting activities designed to meet internal information needs. The Institute of Management Accountants IMA has a web site that provides additional information about management accounting.

External information customers comprise investors, stockholders, creditors, customers, government and regulatory agencies, and financial institutions. For the most part, especially for publicly held companies, providing audited information in the form of financial statements to external users is mandatory. Furthermore, generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) dictate the standards and practices to be followed in external financial reporting. Although the task of external financial reporting is important, it is also necessary to recognize that the annual financial statements are only one source of information about a company’s financial condition. Analysts on Wall Street and other industry experts constantly track the performance of major corporations. In fact, research has found that the release of annual financial statements has very little impact on stock prices, especially of larger companies. The finance site at Yahoo provides a wealth of information including earnings reports, stock quotes, analyst research, and earnings news.

The paper annual report is slowly becoming obsolete, with almost all publicly traded companies making their annual report available on their web site. Additionally, most companies provide additional financial information, such as quarterly reports, on their corporate web sites in the “investor relations” section. In January 2000, the Financial Accounting Standards Board published a 94 page report detailing practices in Internet reporting of financial information. Over the last several years, a technology called XBRL has been developed to facilitate the “tagging” of financial statement line items with the goal of enabling Internet reporting and electronic exchange of such information. After initially encouraging companies to report their financial results using XBRL technology on a voluntary basis, the Securities and Exchange Commission now requires publicly held companies to report financial statement information in the XBRL format. You will learn about XBRL technology in Chapter 4.

Whether information customers are internal or external to an organization, they are increasingly demanding instantaneous user-friendly access to relevant and reliable information. No longer are these customers satisfied with periodic reports that are cumbersome to obtain, frequently irrelevant, and often plagued by errors. Users are now sophisticated enough to realize the power and capabilities of present day information technology. In fact some of these users often create their own personal information systems to supplant the organization’s systems.

Accounting: The Traditional View As discussed above, the purpose of accounting is to provide information for economic decision making. Economic activity in an organization manifests itself in a variety of events traditionally referred to as transactions. For long, the role of accounting has been

 

 

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to record, classify, and report the results of these transactions. The traditional methodology for recording and classifying transactions is the double-entry system of bookkeeping devised by Luca Pacioli in 1494. This five-hundred-year-old methodology which you undoubtedly are very familiar with is still in use today, which some may see as a testament to its durability. However, the traditional model of accounting has several shortcomings given the demands of today’s business environment. Let us now take a brief look at the manual accounting process which has most likely been the predominant focus in your accounting courses to date.

The manual accounting process

The accounting equation states that assets must equal the sum of liabilities and owners’ equity. Income and expenses result in changes in owners’ equity. At the end of each accounting period, the net result of that period’s operations—either a net income or a net loss—results in owners’ equity being either increased (net income) or decreased (net loss). Other than the net result of operations, owners’ equity can increase upon additional investments of capital or decrease upon payment of dividends. The guiding principle for the recording of transactions is the double-entry bookkeeping model. In essence, the double-entry model and its insistence that “debits equal credits” ensures that assets will always equal the sum of liabilities and owners’ equity. The starting point for the accounting process is the transaction. Transactions can either involve some sort of economic exchange with an external entity or an internal event of economic significance. In either case, evidence of the transaction or event is prepared in the form of a source document. This source document, for example a sales invoice, is recorded in a journal. The time lag between occurrence of a transaction and its recording in a journal can vary from one organization to the next. Some organizations may record transactions in journals soon after they occur. Others may record transactions at the end of every business day.

Another point worthy of note is that transactions can be recorded either in special journals or in the general journal. Special journals simplify the task of recording routine, repetitive transactions such as sales, purchases, cash receipts, and cash disbursements. The general journal is used for occasional, exceptional transactions like recording depreciation on an asset. Transactions must be classified appropriately as they are entered in a journal. Classification occurs by choosing the correct journal in which to record a transaction and by correctly specifying accounts to be debited and credited.

Journals are temporary stores of transaction information. Periodically, entries from journals are posted to ledgers which are permanent stores of information. As with journals, there are both special purpose and general purpose ledgers. For example, the accounts receivable subsidiary ledger is a special purpose ledger designed to store information about what customers owe the organization. The general ledger holds all other accounts including summary accounts called “control accounts” for each subsidiary ledger.

 

 

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While journals are “closed out” at the end of each accounting period, ledgers are not. As alluded to earlier, special journals simplify the accounting process since only summary amounts for certain accounts need be posted to the ledger. In contrast, every single entry from a general journal must be individually posted to the ledger. The act of posting entries from journals to ledgers serves to update the balances in the ledger. Balances from the ledger are periodically summarized to produce a trial balance. One reason to periodically prepare a trial balance is to ensure that total debits equal total credits. The trial balance only reflects transactions already recorded. Before useful financial reports can be prepared, consideration must be given to any additional information suggesting the need for adjusting entries to reflect any unrecorded but valid transactions. Using the trial balance and any adjusting entries as inputs, financial reports, including the income statement and the balance sheet, are then prepared.

The accounting cycle can thus be summarized as follows: (1) capture transaction data on source documents, (2) soon after transactions occur, they are recorded either in special journals or the general journal, (3) the entries are periodically posted from journals to both subsidiary ledgers and the general ledger, (4) the trial balance is prepared periodically using the balances from the general ledger, (5) journalize and post “adjusting entries” that take into consideration additional information not impounded into the trial balance (e.g., to write off an uncollectible account, to accrue unpaid expenses, etc.), (6) prepare the adjusted trial balance that incorporates the adjusting entries, (7) prepare financial statements, specifically the income statement, the balance sheet and the statement of cash flows, (8) journalize and post closing entries that “close out” the temporary income statement accounts (with the net effect reflected in the retained earnings account), and (9) prepare the post-closing trial balance in preparation for the next accounting period. The manual accounting process is depicted in the following figure.

 

 

 

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Problems with the traditional view of accounting

There are a number of problems that limit the usefulness of the traditional accounting model given the complexities of the global marketplace and the demands of present day information customers. Briefly, the shortcomings are as follows:

• “transactions” orientation as opposed to an “events” orientation, • narrow focus on financial data, • reporting is periodic and not real-time, • limited accessibility of information, • too high a level of aggregation, and • limited flexibility which prevents answering queries that cross functional

boundaries.

Let us discuss each of these drawbacks in some detail.

Transactions orientation

Historically, accounting has focused on “transactions” as the starting point of the accounting process. Transactions are classified as either exchange transactions involving external entities or internal transactions such as those involving the use of a depreciable asset. A typical transaction results in debits and credits to accounts such that the total of debits equals the total of credits for that transaction. The manual accounting process required the creation of a “source document” as evidence for each transaction. Source documents, such as a sales invoice for a sales transaction, contained all the data necessary to record the necessary information about the transaction. Source documents also provided evidence that the transaction was approved and authorized.

In most organizations, several events transpire that do not fit the typical “transactions” mold. The breakdown of a machine, a call from a customer offering a suggestion, or an inquiry from a potential customer are all examples of significant events that do not necessitate debits and credits to any ledger account. Thus, such events are not viewed as transactions and are therefore typically not “accounted for” within the accounting system. It is easy to see how the traditional “transactions orientation” can result in valuable information being omitted from the accounting information system.

Narrow view—financial data only

A problem related to the transactions orientation is that the accounting information system has historically restricted itself to financial information. A possible reason for this narrow view is that financial data is very easily measurable. Non-financial measures such as machine downtime, product weights and colors, employee skills, and product quality attributes are somewhat harder to measure than say the dollar amount of sales.

 

 

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Further, these measures are typically not associated with routine (or non-routine) transactions and are therefore never recorded in the accounting information system. That is not to say that organizations did not keep track of those measures. Separate information systems were usually devised for recording and reporting non-financial measures as needed. For an example, a manufacturing information system would likely record information about machine availability and downtime. In fact, this tendency to create a new information system to meet a new set of needs often resulted in the proliferation of systems. What was typically missing, however, was an integration of these disparate systems into one well-organized data repository.

Periodic, not real-time

Accounting has traditionally had a historical focus in terms of reporting about what occurred during the year or quarter or week. Financial reports were generated at predetermined intervals and reflected the results of operations for some elapsed period of time. A major reason for this periodic reporting was that in a manual accounting environment the compilation of financial statements took a significant amount of time. It was not possible for users to generate an income statement on demand. As indicated previously, the accounting cycle involved the preparation of the trial balance, the consideration of adjusting entries as needed, and finally the creation of the income statement and the balance sheet. Any discrepancy in the trial balance would have to be resolved before the financial statements could be produced. Thus, in a manual accounting environment, there was little option but to generate financial statements at periodic intervals, given the lengthy and error-prone process of compiling these statements.

In contrast, an automated accounting system facilitates the generation of financial statements “on the fly.” If the computer-based accounting system has been set up correctly, and if the programs that generate financial reports are functioning properly, then the generation of financial statements in real-time is well within reach. Internal users would no longer be restricted to periodic reports of financial performance. Thus, a manager could execute a program that would display the current status of revenues and/or expenses updated to that very minute. In effect, the accounting system can provide perpetual rather than periodic reports.

Of course, a number of accounting mechanisms such as depreciation, amortization, and allowances would have to be considered in generating real-time financial reports. If reasonably accurate approximations of these items cannot be generated, then appropriate caveats would have to be included in real-time reports. The validity of numbers in real-time reports is another issue. Later in the chapter we will briefly discuss auditing of financial statements—both from a traditional as well as a futuristic perspective. Perhaps for these reasons, external users would continue to receive periodic reports, although technology exists to provide even external users with close to real-time financial reports on the World Wide Web.

 

 

 

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Limited accessibility

In a manual accounting system, accessibility of accounting data was restricted to a select few individuals in the Accounting department. The Accounts Receivable Clerk who maintained the Accounts Receivable subsidiary ledger would have to be contacted to obtain information on the current status of a customer’s account. Computerization of transaction processing systems alleviated the problem considerably since any authorized user could access the desired information electronically. However, the first wave of computerization of accounting systems did not completely solve the problem of accessibility. Only recently have technological advances made it possible for users to obtain instantaneous access to information on demand.

Too high a level of aggregation

The traditional accounting model focused heavily on the summarization of accounting information. Ledger balances represented a summarization of transaction activity, and the detailed ledger balances were summarized even further to prepare the financial statements. This level of summarization was a necessary by-product of the structure imposed by the accounting cycle to simplify the accounting process. Recall that the accounting cycle involves posting journal entries to the ledger, posting ledger balances to the trial balance, and eventually generating financial statements. The end user of accounting information could only view the summarized numbers in the financial statements; the details underlying the summarized financial statement numbers were hidden from the end user.

Once the accounting process was automated, it became feasible to provide end users with access not only to the eventual financial reports but also to the detailed transactions that made up the summarized numbers in those reports. Users could in effect “drill down” to view the make up of summarized numbers in reports.

Limited flexibility

Traditional bookkeeping, organized around the double-entry accounting model, tended to focus on the traditional accounting “cycles.” For most organizations, accounting cycles comprise revenue (sales, billing, collections, returns), procurement (ordering, receiving, recording purchase liability, payment), production (for manufacturing firms), inventory, payroll, and general ledger. Unfortunately, the drudgery involved in a manual system meant that one or more accounting clerks was needed for each separate cycle. Thus, an accounts payable clerk would be responsible for maintaining the purchases journal and the accounts payable subsidiary ledger. Each of the other cycles would similarly have its own set of books maintained by different accounting clerks. Such separation was not only efficient but it was also desirable from a control perspective. Unfortunately, this separation of the records made it difficult to answer user queries that crossed functional areas. For example, a manager might want to know how many units of each widget type are on order for the widgets that have sold the most. Such a query

 

 

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requires data from both the purchasing and the sales cycles and was difficult to answer in a manual system with separate sets of books for each cycle.

The appendix to this chapter takes a closer look at traditional manual and automated accounting processes for the two major “accounting cycles”—sales and purchases. The appendix shows document flowcharts for manual accounting processes and computer systems flowcharts for computer-based accounting procedures. You might find it useful to study the appendix, if only to refresh your memory of the traditional accounting procedures that you have probably studied in previous accounting classes. We chose to include the discussion of manual and automated accounting procedures in an appendix because we do not feel it necessary to dwell too much on procedures that are clearly antiquated and are not the ideal to which most present day businesses are striving.

As you are well aware, purely manual accounting (“bookkeeping”) is virtually obsolete. Even the smallest of “mom and pop” operations can afford to invest in some level of computer-based accounting. For much less than $1,000, a business can acquire a basic personal computer with software such as Quickbooks (a low-end accounting software package). We next discuss computerized accounting and the drawbacks associated with the “first wave” of automated accounting approaches.

Computerized Bookkeeping: No Panacea The first wave of automation of accounting systems did little to alleviate the problems described above. Rather than “reengineering” the accounting system, computers were used simply to automate manual accounting systems. Using the computer to process accounting transactions brought the possibility of immense speed and accuracy to the bookkeeping process. In the early days of computer-based accounting (the ’60s and early ’70s), the typical approach was to develop custom transaction processing applications using COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language). Programmers developed COBOL programs for processing the accounting transactions in each of the organization’s accounting cycles—revenue (sales, billing, collections, returns), procurement (ordering, receiving, recording purchase liability, payment), production (for manufacturing firms), inventory, payroll, and general ledger. Although COBOL is quite a powerful language, considerable programming skill is required to craft the suite of programs necessary to handle all the transaction processing needs in an organization. Modifications to these programs are typically not easy to perform. Moreover, generating reports from these COBOL driven systems was a very tedious process. Early in the process, organizations used the report generator in COBOL. Later on, third party report generators were used extensively. While standard reports were readily available, management’s ability to modify existing reports or, more importantly, to generate reports on an “as needed basis” was very difficult. Thus, developing custom transaction processing computer programs was an approach that was time-consuming and expensive, especially since skilled programmers were in short supply.

In the late ’70s and even more so in the ’80s, a popular alternative emerged—to use an off-the-shelf accounting software package. An accounting software package has a pre-

 

 

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defined user interface, chart of accounts system, transaction processing options, and report generators. While some customization and modification of package features is usually possible, the firm will likely have to adapt somewhat to the idiosyncrasies of the accounting package. For example, the package may generate sales analysis reports broken down by salesperson or by region, but not broken down by salesperson within a region. Thus, an off-the-shelf package may satisfy a firm’s bookkeeping requirements, but typically will not satisfy the need for non-standard or ad-hoc reports. The chief advantage of accounting packages is their relatively low cost and reliability. Furthermore, unlike custom developed programs that are prone to errors, reputable off- the-shelf accounting software packages are essentially free of errors. Despite the inflexibility of accounting packages relative to custom developed programs, their popularity is not surprising in light of the fact that many low-end packages can be purchased and implemented for a fraction of the cost of custom-developing an accounting system.

Let us now explore the features and structure of these “computerized bookkeeping” systems. Both custom-developed COBOL programs and off-the-shelf accounting packages are geared towards automating the processing of accounting transactions. They both provide functionality for recording accounting transactions. For example, an accounting package will typically accept the following revenue cycle accounting transactions: cash sales, credit sales, collections on account, and sales returns and allowances. In a custom-developed environment, the same transactions are typically handled by a series of COBOL programs. Thus, computerized bookkeeping retains an “accounting transactions orientation.” It also retains the focus on financial data alone. A business event such as a salesperson contact with a potential customer will find no place in a standard accounting software package. The following figure depicts the functioning of the sales and accounts receivable portion of an accounting software package or a custom developed COBOL program.

 

 

 

As shown in the above figure, the “Sales and Accounts Receivable Module” is designed to accept the typical set of accounting transactions—credit sales to customers, collections (cash receipts) from customers, and sales returns and allowances. Through

 

 

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proprietary file management software (the most common of which is the “Btrieve” structure for microcomputer-based packages, discussed further in Chapter 2), input transactions are recorded in computer files. However, it is important to recognize that the data in these files is accessible only through the file management software. It is not possible to obtain direct access to the data files using application software packages such as Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access. Thus, reports that can be generated are only those that are already programmed into the software package or designed by the programmer (in the case of custom-developed software).

A number of accounting packages mirror the “posting” of transactions to ledger accounts. When accounting transactions are input using a software module, that transaction data does not necessarily update all affected accounts instantaneously. Consider the case of credit sales transactions. As credit sales are entered into the system, the sales account would typically be instantly updated. However, accounts receivable may not be updated instantly—an explicit “posting” action must be undertaken to “apply” the sales transactions to the accounts receivable and customer accounts. Recall that in manual accounting, transactions are initially recorded in journals and then ultimately posted to ledgers. A surprisingly large number of accounting software packages require an explicit “posting” operation whereby transactions stored in journal files periodically update balances in ledger files. The main drawback of periodic posting, as discussed earlier, is that “real-time” reports cannot be generated. Reports are up-to-date only after all postings have been made. Transactions that are recorded after the postings have been made are not reflected in reports until the next posting operation is performed. It is for this reason that most accounting software packages are considered to be simply “automated” versions of conventional manual bookkeeping.

All accounting software packages, and all well designed custom systems, provide a large number of canned reports that the user can generate. For example, sales analysis reports, customer statements, and a collections report are some examples of reports that can be generated from the sales and accounts receivable module of most any accounting package. However, most packages provide only limited functionality for generating custom ad hoc reports. The sales manager might want a report showing all sales in the “East” region by salesperson “John Smith” involving sales of widgets in June 2013 amounting to more than $2,500. It is highly unlikely that the standard reporting modules in accounting packages could generate such a report. The main reason for this inflexibility is that the underlying data stored in computer files within the accounting software package are accessible only using the menu structures programmed into the package. Users cannot access the accounting package’s data files directly. Thus, the inflexibility drawback of traditional manual accounting still exists in computerized bookkeeping, albeit to a lesser degree given the numerous reporting options that come standard with popular accounting software packages.

Regarding the level of aggregation in data, as alluded to above, automation in bookkeeping does provide relatively easy access to the underlying data. Unlike in a purely manual accounting system, users working with an accounting software package

 

 

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can quite easily “drill down” to see the detailed data underlying an aggregated number in a report. The degree to which the user can drill down will of course vary as a function of the specific package being used. Recall, however, that the data stored in virtually all accounting packages is restricted to standard accounting transaction processing oriented data.

As is apparent in the figure above, a key aspect of computerized bookkeeping is the maintenance of a separate set of computer files for each accounting cycle. The paper books in a manual accounting system were simply replaced by computer files. The design of the system, particularly the separate books for each cycle, was not fundamentally altered. Rather, COBOL programs were written for each accounting cycle. Of course, the speed of transaction processing was considerably faster. The same number of transactions could now be handled accurately and far more efficiently by computer-based transaction processing systems. However, it was still difficult to answer cross-functional queries since even the automated systems were separately maintained with no easy way to link data across sub-systems. For this reason, we say that computerized bookkeeping was not the panacea for the problem of providing users with the right information at the right time.

The advantages and drawbacks of computerized bookkeeping are summarized in the following table:

 

Advantages Drawbacks

Automation of tedious manual accounting tasks (e.g., posting to ledgers)

Accounting transactions orientation only; non-financial events not recorded

Speed and accuracy Periodic rather than “real-time” reports

Low cost (accounting packages only) Limited flexibility in generating “ad-hoc” reports

Automatic generation of standard accounting reports for common needs (e.g., sales analysis reports, customer statements, financial statements).

Data accessible only through proprietary file management systems

Redundant data storage permits efficient generation of certain standard accounting reports

Cross-functional queries difficult to answer

 

 

 

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The New View: A Database Approach The new view of accounting reverts to the fundamental definition of accounting as the main information-providing function within organizations. To reiterate, the purpose of accounting is to provide information for economic decision making. As business events transpire, the accounting system should collect and store data about all aspects of those events. Data should be stored at the most elemental level, with all aggregation and summarization being left to individual users. The data stored should not be limited to financial data. Most importantly, all event data should be stored in a single integrated repository. This approach visualizes an enterprise-wide information system for an organization spanning departmental and functional lines. Although such a system might seem somewhat idealistic, technology capable of implementing such a solution is available today.

There are two distinct approaches to constructing a database-driven enterprise information system. The first approach is to custom-develop a suite of applications and relational database technology to meet the organization’s information needs, with all data being stored in a relational database like Oracle. The second approach is to implement “enterprise resource planning” (ERP) software from vendors such as SAP and Oracle. ERP systems like SAP provide the benefits of an off-the-shelf package in that little (if any) custom programming is required, and they also store the data in a relational database, thereby facilitating enterprise-wide access to the organization’s mission critical data.

Installing an ERP system like SAP can literally take years and several million dollars at large businesses, since there are thousands of configurable switches that must be painstakingly set to meet the needs of the business. Moreover, businesses often engage in revolutionary reengineering as they replace their age-old (“legacy”) systems with an ERP system, increasing the cost and complexity of the ERP implementation even further. With either the custom-developed path or the ERP path, the key advantages are the capturing of data about all significant business events and the storage of that data in an integrated enterprise-wide database accessible by all users and that provides all information necessary to run the business. The trade literature is replete with success stories of large and small companies benefiting from database technology. If you visit the web sites of the main ERP system vendors, like SAP, or the major relational database system vendors, like Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM, you will see references to companies having successfully deployed the database products offered by these companies. We recommend visiting these web sites (by clicking on the links here and at the end of the chapter) to explore some of these stories. Let us explore this new database approach to accounting in greater detail.

A recent trend in ERP systems is to employ “cloud computing” technology. This technology involves the use of applications and servers that are accessible via a Web browser at any time and from anywhere. Email applications such as Google’s Gmail is one such example of cloud computing. A popular cloud-based ERP system is NetSuite.

 

 

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Events orientation: In contrast to the “transactions” orientation of traditional manual and automated systems, the database approach focuses on capturing data about business events. All relevant business events should be captured, preferably as the events transpire. A call from a potential customer, a complaint from an existing customer, a suggestion from an employee: these are some examples of relevant business events that have no place in a traditional transactions-oriented accounting system. There is no “accounting transaction” pertaining to a customer complaint. However, most managers would argue that information about customer complaints is valuable and should be stored in the organization’s information system. The “transactions” mentality in traditional systems focuses on dollar amounts and the accounts to be debited and credited. The events orientation in the database approach simply seeks to record data about all events in a system that is not constrained by the debit-credit rules of double- entry bookkeeping. Of course, recognizing which events to capture data about, and specifically what data is to be captured, is more art than science. Later in this book we will present a methodology for modeling the organization’s information needs in a manner amenable to implementation on a computer system.

The enterprise-wide repository: A key feature of the database approach is the storage of all entity and event data in a single integrated repository. Such a repository, in practical terms, is the enterprise’s database. We have used the term “integrated” a number of times thus far. Let us now define what we mean by an “integrated” database. The database is “integrated” in a cross-functional sense—data about events occurring in one functional area (e.g., sales order processing) are captured in the database and can automatically trigger events in another functional area (e.g., shipping). Furthermore, all organizational users that need certain information (e.g., a customer’s contact information) have instant access to that information which is stored only once and at one location.

Obviously, depending on the size of the organization and the variety of information needs, such an “integrated database” could be extremely large and complex. Currently available technology allows for the enterprise database to be distributed. That is, the database does not necessarily have to be stored at one location on one computer system. The design of the enterprise’s database is a critical issue that would determine the degree of success of the database approach. Is the database comprehensive enough? Have appropriate links been established between related sets of data within the database? Are data about all aspects of events stored in the database? Affirmative answers to these questions would indicate a successful design of the event repository. The enterprise repository approach, which is at the heart of this new database approach to accounting, is illustrated in the following figure.

 

 

 

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Advantages of the database approach: Having indicated the drawbacks of the traditional approach, and having outlined the key features of the database approach, the advantages of the new approach relative to the traditional accounting model should be obvious. The database approach adopts an events orientation rather than the traditional transactions orientation. This orientation supports the capturing of a wide variety of event data rather than only financial data. The repository thus supports the answering of queries that are not strictly financial in nature (e.g., “how many customer complaints have we had about our Mr. Clean vacuum cleaner?”). Another advantage of the database approach is that users can generate reports at any time upon request and these reports would reflect the current status of the database. Thus, the database approach supports real-time reporting in contrast with the periodic reporting focus of the traditional model. This advantage of the database approach, as will become apparent in our discussion of database technology in Chapter 6, is very much a function of currently available database technology.

The remaining drawbacks of the traditional model are easily overcome in the database approach. Database technology easily permits simultaneous access to data by multiple users. Of course, security mechanisms will have to be instituted to ensure that only authorized users view sensitive data. Answering cross-functional queries is a simple matter since all data are stored in one repository with appropriate links established between related sets of data. The method of modeling and creating these links will be explained in Chapter 8. Data can be stored at the most detailed level in a database system. The phenomenal reductions in the cost of mass storage devices make it practical to store huge volumes of data without summarization. Any summarization or aggregation of the data is controlled entirely by users (and not by the designers of the system).

 

 

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In sum, the advantages of the database approach include

• an events orientation which supports the capturing of financial and non-financial data,

• support for real-time rather than periodic reporting, • increased accessibility of data, • support for cross-functional data analysis, and • storage of data in the most disaggregated form.

Before we conclude this chapter, and having described the new database approach to accounting, let us now examine the various roles in which accountants of the future could interact with database accounting systems.

Roles That Future Accounting Professionals Can Play Now that you have some idea about the database approach to accounting, let us discuss some of the roles that you can play as future accounting professionals. There are three distinct roles in which you might find yourself: (1) as the information professional within an organization, (2) as an auditor, and (3) as a consultant to organizations. In each of these roles you will be heavily involved in database oriented information systems, either as a designer within organizations, an evaluator (external auditor), or as a designer of such systems for other organizations (i.e., as a consultant). Let us explore each of these roles a little further. Information professional within an organization: In terms of the traditional view, accountants within an organization are categorized as financial or managerial accountants. Financial accountants are charged with the responsibility of generating routine and ad hoc reports of the results of transaction processing. Additionally, financial accountants ensure compliance with all the external reporting rules and regulations. Specifically, they deal with the organization’s compliance with GAAP. Managerial accountants deal primarily with the internal accounting information needs of the organization. Product costing, budgeting, variance analysis, and cost-volume-profit analysis are a few examples of the array of functions handled by managerial accountants.

In the new database approach, accountants working within an organization can be categorized simply as “information professionals.” All the tasks involved in creating and using the organization’s integrated database would fall under the purview of the “new” accounting professional. In designing the database system, more than likely you will work closely with other information professionals who may possess greater technical skills. But your knowledge of accounting information needs puts you in a unique position to contribute as a member of the design team. After completion of this course, your information systems skills should be at a level where you can carry out most of the systems design and development tasks without having to call on other information systems personnel. The focus of the accountant within the organization should be on how best to design the event repository (i.e., the database) to maximum its utility. Will

 

 

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all relevant event data be stored in the repository? Can any and all accounting information views be easily generated from the database in real-time? Will the necessary controls be incorporated into the system to ensure the integrity of the database and the reliability of information generated from it? These are questions that the accountant should be able to answer as the information professional within an organization. If the accountant is unable to provide answers to these questions, organizations will simply turn to other information providers (“pure” management information systems professionals). Our competitive advantage, relative to other information professionals, is our understanding of internal accounting information needs such as budgeting and variance analysis, our awareness of relevant controls that should be in place in information systems, and our knowledge of external reporting requirements such as GAAP and how they can be satisfied in a database oriented environment.

Auditor in a public accounting firm: As you are aware, all publicly held companies are required to have their financial statements audited by a Certified Public Accountant. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants issues standards that their members must adhere to in conducting financial statement audits. Historically, CPAs auditing financial statements have focused on verifying whether the annual financial statements (income statement and balance sheet) fairly represent the financial condition of the company. This objective is achieved by performing a variety of auditing procedures aimed at satisfying a number of audit objectives regarding the assertions being made in the company’s financial statements.

Auditing as we know it will undergo radical transformation over the next few years. There will be a fundamental shift in focus from verifying the accuracy of the year-end financial statements to ensuring the reliability of the system that produces financial information. The “Big Four” public accounting firms, and smaller firms as well, have realized that traditional financial statement auditing has a limited future with virtually no prospects for growth. Too often auditors are seen as impediments to progress in organizations. Other than fulfilling the statutory obligation for an independent audit, there seems to be little value added by the external auditor. Perhaps this limited future for traditional auditing has resulted from auditors’ focus on detection rather than prevention and on examining the historical outputs of a system.

Over the last several years, however, auditors have come to realize that their traditional auditing techniques are inadequate when they are confronted with complex computer- based accounting systems. It has become necessary for auditors to focus more on the controls embedded within these computer-based systems, rather than only on the outputs of the systems. Understanding and testing controls in complex systems such as SAP’s mySAP is a daunting task. Moreover, this problem is becoming even more pronounced as the complexity in information technology continues to escalate. All the “Big Four” accounting firms have divisions that specialize in reviewing information technology controls and auditing computer-based accounting systems. For their “information systems auditing” divisions (labeled “computer risk management,” “enterprise risk services”, etc.) the “Big Four” firms are seeking accounting professionals

 

 

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who are not only knowledgeable about the latest FASB pronouncement but are also familiar with recent advances in information technology and are comfortable working with the latest computer-based systems. Many individuals who conduct information systems audits earn a certification called the Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA). This is the predominant certification for information systems auditors. This certification is offered and managed by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association. Information on the CISA is readily available from this organization.

In the future, organizations will increasingly move from periodic to real-time reporting. Consequently, auditors must increasingly turn their attention to the underlying information system that generates the numbers in the financial statements. Are appropriate controls embedded into the system to prevent errors from occurring? Can auditing techniques be built into the system to in effect perform a “continuous audit” of the client’s system? These are some of the questions that auditors in the future will be increasingly called upon to answer. The “balance sheet audit” which many auditors today still perform will soon be looked upon as being “too little too late.” If auditors shift their focus from a reactive to more proactive stance, if they focus on preventing rather than detecting errors by building controls and auditing techniques into information systems, and if they provide value added services in the arena of information systems control and security, the future for attest services is indeed very promising.

Consultant in an accounting or consulting firm: We have painted a picture of the accountant as an “information professional.” Many future accounting professionals will take it upon themselves to enhance their information systems skills to the point where they can be adept at all stages of the systems design, development, and implementation cycle. Many academic accounting programs now offer an “information systems” track, with a heavy concentration of courses in information systems that go well beyond the coverage of the accounting information systems course in which you are currently enrolled.

For all the “Big Four” accounting firms, the area of highest growth is consulting, often referred to as “advisory services.” In fact, the “Big 4” firms are positioning themselves as “professional services” firms rather than “accounting” firms. Given the growth and value potential of such consulting services, and pursuant to regulatory action from the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, the Big 4 firms spun off their consulting divisions into separate firms. For example, the consulting firm Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) was formed many years ago as a unit separate and distinct from the now defunct accounting firm Arthur Andersen. Still, “advisory services” form a significant portion of the services offered by the “Big 4” firms today. What exactly does “advisory services” entail, and how might you as an accounting professional participate in an advisory role in an organization? In an advisory capacity, you might be involved in reviewing the accounting systems in a company, specifically the internal controls therein. You might become part of the team that is engaged in planning and designing a new accounting information system. Most organizations are beginning to realize the value of enterprise-wide information systems. However, they are often burdened by their existing array of separate information systems, which often do not provide them

 

 

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with the right information at the right time. These older systems are referred to as “legacy” systems—they typically date back to the era when manual accounting systems were simply automated, resulting in a plethora of disjointed COBOL transaction processing programs. Organizations now need these legacy systems to be reengineered, revamped, or totally replaced by current generation ERP systems. As indicated earlier, a leading ERP system that has been implemented in many Fortune 1000 companies is SAP. So as a consultant or an advisor, you might be closely involved with the design and development of a custom system, or you might be part of a team engaged in the process of implementing an ERP system. While such a career does call for significant technical skills (which are not too onerous to acquire), opportunities in this field abound.

Overview of the book Having presented the new database approach to accounting, and having contrasted it with the traditional view which you are probably familiar with, let us now preview the remainder of the book. The Appendix to chapter 1 takes a closer look at manual and computerized bookkeeping procedures. You may find it useful to review the Appendix, especially if you have not studied flowcharts of manual and computer-based accounting procedures. In chapter 2, we will introduce and discuss basic elements of information systems such as bytes and files. Chapter 3 will focus on information technology issues. A host of technologies will be discussed with specific reference to present day input, processing, and output devices. The discussion of technology will include both hardware and software issues. In chapter 4 we focus on data communications and networking issues including the Internet. Since technology changes so rapidly, near the end of chapters 3 and 4 we include links to the Web sites of a number of vendors such as Intel, Microsoft, and Novell for updates on the very latest technological innovations. After having covered the basics of information systems and information technology, chapter 5 progresses to advanced information systems such as decision support and expert systems. As organizations seek to convert information into knowledge, rather than just data into information, these advanced systems are becoming increasingly popular. In chapter 6 we introduce the basic elements of database systems. A number of database-oriented concepts will be described. Building on this foundation, chapter 7 discusses systems analysis and design procedures with specific emphasis on database systems. Chapter 8 proceeds to describe the “entity-relationship” (ER) logical modeling approach for modeling business information needs, with specific reference to accounting information needs. Process modeling using data flow diagrams (DFD) is also discussed in chapter 8. In chapter 9 we describe the process of converting the logical models from chapter 8 into physical models that can be implemented in a database system. The database system we use to demonstrate the process is Microsoft Access, a popular relational database system that runs on the Microsoft Windows family of operating systems.

A critical concern in designing and building systems is to ensure that they incorporate all the necessary controls to prevent errors and irregularities from occurring. Chapter 10 discusses a variety of controls that can be implemented in a database-oriented

 

 

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information system. The discussion of controls is tied to the COSO (Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission) Internal Control—Integrated Framework released in May 2013, as well as recently issued auditing standards from the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). You may be familiar with these auditing standards if you have already taken an Auditing course. Apart from a general discussion of the categories and types of controls, we will specifically discuss control and security features in database management systems. Chapter 11, which discusses information systems auditing, builds on the discussion in Chapter 10. Again, Chapter 11 presents a general discussion of auditing, but specifically discusses auditing procedures in database environments.

Having discussed technology, modeling techniques, controls, and auditing, we now apply all of these concepts to discuss how various “accounting” views can be crafted from a comprehensive integrated enterprise database system. Chapter 12 presents revenue cycle views of the enterprise database system and chapter 13 presents procurement cycle views. We will discuss how these different views can all be extracted from the same data repository. Controls and auditing techniques built into the database system for each of these views will also be discussed. We also discuss the process of managing change. While the database approach to accounting would certainly result in a functional system for an organization at a specific point in time, the real test of the methodology is its response to change. How does an enterprise database system adapt to a changing environment? How can the ER and DFD modeling approaches be employed to model changes to the environment, and how can these changes be incorporated into the organization’s enterprise database system? These are some of the issues that will be discussed in chapters 12 and 13. Finally, chapter 14 “puts it all together” and describes how accounting and related business processes spanning the whole enterprise can be modeled and implemented in an integrated database-driven system. Chapter 14 also discusses the architecture of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems such as SAP and Oracle Applications.

We hope this introductory chapter and the overview of the remainder of the book have piqued your interest in this new vision of accounting as a database-oriented information system. This chapter has presented a view of accounting that goes well beyond debits and credits. As a future accounting professional, we hope you will seize this opportunity to obtain a new perspective on accounting. A fear of technology back in the 1970s and 1980s caused accountants to lose ground to other information professionals, most notably the “management information systems” profession. We hope this book and this course are steps towards reclaiming that lost territory. By the end of this course, you should be well positioned to add value to any organization as a skilled information professional in the twenty-first century.

 

 

 

 

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Summary This chapter began with a discussion of the fundamental purpose of accounting. The traditional view of accounting and the double-entry model of accounting was contrasted with a more modern view of accounting called the “database approach” to accounting. The information customers served by accounting were presented, and the diversity in their information needs was discussed. The traditional accounting model was then presented, and the problems with traditional manual accounting were noted. The narrow, financial data focus of traditional accounting was noted as one of the impediments to allowing the accounting information system to serve the needs of non- accountants. Information customers are demanding real-time reports while still requiring assurance about the reliability of information. Computerized bookkeeping, made possible by accounting software packages or custom-developed COBOL programs, resulted simply in the automation of traditional manual accounting. In contrast, the database approach results in the development of an integrated enterprise database system which meets the information needs of all users. Financial and non-financial data is stored at the most disaggregated level. Real-time reporting and flexible views of the database are easily supported. The various roles that future accounting professionals can play were discussed. Accountants can either serve as information professionals within an organization, as auditors capable of dealing with database-oriented information systems, or as consultants involved in the design and development of information systems to a wide-ranging clientele. The chapter concluded with an overview of the remainder of the book.

 

 

 

 

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Key Web Sites International Accounting Firms

• Deloitte • EY (formerly Ernst & Young) • KPMG • PricewaterhouseCoopers

Consulting Firms

• Accenture • Boston Consulting Group • Cap Gemini • EDS • IBM • McKinsey & Company

Key Computer and Software Related Firms

• Apple Computers • Microsoft • Intel • Novell

Major Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Systems Vendors

• SAP ERP • Oracle Applications • NetSuite • Microsoft Dynamics

Major Database Systems Vendors

• Oracle • Microsoft • IBM — DB2 • IBM — Informix

 

 

 

 

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Discussion Questions 1. Discuss some of the challenges facing business today. Does information

technology play a role in these challenges? Explain. 2. Giving examples, discuss how information technology is revolutionizing the

accounting function and what accountants do. Contrast accounting tasks before and after the “information technology revolution.”

3. What is the role of the accounting professional in the database approach to satisfying business information needs? Be specific.

4. Explain the purpose of accounting. Distinguish between the purpose of accounting and the traditional methodology used in accounting.

5. Who are the “information customers” served by accounting. Provide examples. 6. Describe the traditional view of accounting and the manual accounting process. 7. What are the problems associated with the traditional view of accounting? 8. Distinguish between “transactions orientation” and “events orientation.” 9. Accounting has been criticized for adopting a narrow view focusing only on the

financial aspects of transactions. Giving examples, explain how accounting can move beyond purely financial measurement of transactions.

10. Distinguish between periodic and real-time reporting. From an accounting standpoint, does real-time reporting present any problems? Explain.

11. Explain why the accessibility of data in a manual accounting system is limited. 12. Traditional manual accounting systems are often criticized because accounting

data are stored in too aggregate a form and because of the limited flexibility in answering cross functional queries. Are these criticisms valid? Explain why or why not.

13. The two unique aspects of the database approach to accounting are (1) events orientation and (2) enterprise-wide repository. Explain each of these two aspects of the database approach.

14. What are the advantages of the database approach to accounting in contrast with traditional manual accounting?

15. Briefly explain the various roles that future accounting professionals can play.

 

 

 

 

 

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Problems and Exercises 1. ACME Supplies is a retail store specializing in hardware and building supplies. Merchandise is purchased from vendors on account. Vendor representatives visit the store and solicit orders from the store manager. Often, the store manager does not place an order because she feels that the prices on items being offered by the representative are likely to go down. The store has eight employees, four of which are salespersons. Salespersons assist customers in finding merchandise and answer any questions that they might have. There is high turnover among the salespersons, and it is not uncommon for one or more salespersons to call in sick or simply fail to appear for work. Occasionally, customers leave the store unable to find what they are looking for. Merchandise is sold to customers on a cash basis and also on credit to selected customers (mainly large local builders). The store is located in a leased building. Apart from lease payments, other expenses include utilities, maintenance expenses, office supplies, and payroll. The store also has a bank loan to finance its working capital requirements.

• a) Assuming that ACME Supplies has a manual accounting system, list the various accounting cycles that you might expect to find for the store.

• b) List revenue and expense items and indicate in which cycle each item would be accounted for.

• c) Assuming that financial reports are prepared monthly, list the month-end procedures which would have to be undertaken to generate the reports.

• d) Generate questions that the store manager might have that would be difficult to answer given a traditional manual accounting system.

• e) Identify some events which are relevant for the store but which would not be captured and reflected in a traditional manual accounting system.

2. Bubba Howdee is an aspiring accounting major at Northwest Montana Tech. He has heard from friends that accounting is a good major because most accounting students get jobs upon graduation. Bubba likes working with numbers and got an A in “Principles of Accounting” where he had no trouble with debits and credits. However, he describes himself as being “computer illiterate” and did not particularly like the “Introduction to Information Systems” class. Bubba seeks your advice regarding whether he should pursue a future in accounting.

• a) What advice would you have for Bubba? • b) Describe the various types of jobs that an accounting major can get and

indicate the kinds of computer skills that might be required for each job. • c) Compare and contrast accounting procedures as they would occur in a

traditional manual accounting system relative to a database-oriented system. • d) Given your own background and training thus far, indicate how well prepared

you feel to take on a role as the information provider in an organization, possibly competing with MIS professionals.

 

 

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3. Visit the Web sites of each of the “Big Four” CPA firms. For each firm, construct a brief list of services provided by each of their various divisions. Indicate your assessment of the extent of (1) accounting skills and (2) information technology skills required for a professional in the firm to provide those services.

4. Visit the Web sites of the major ERP system vendors: SAP ERP, Oracle Applications, NetSuite, Microsoft Dynamics. Within each web site, locate information provided about “success stories” of customers using that vendor’s enterprise software. Such information may be located under a “customer profiles” section or a “customer successes” section of the ERP vendor’s web site. Gather enough information for classroom discussion. If so directed by your instructor, write a brief summary of one such “success story” for any one of the ERP vendors.

5. In a conversation with a recruiter from one of the “Big Four” accounting firms, he mentioned that a number of staff that do information systems audits in his office have a certification called the CISA. The recruiter proceeded to tell you what he knew about this certification but really wasn’t up to speed on the exact requirements for earning this certification. You thought this certification might be something you would be interested in. Visit the Information Systems Control and Audit Association web site (at www.isaca.org) and prepare a brief report on the requirements for this certification.

Last Updated: August 16, 2013

 

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  • Organizations and the role accounting
  • Information Customers
  • Accounting: The Traditional View
    • The manual accounting process
    • Problems with the traditional view of accounting
      • Transactions orientation
      • Narrow view—financial data only
      • Periodic, not real-time
      • Limited accessibility
      • Too high a level of aggregation
      • Limited flexibility
  • Computerized Bookkeeping: No Panacea
  • The New View: A Database Approach
  • Roles That Future Accounting Professionals Can Play
  • Overview of the book
  • Summary
  • Key Web Sites
    • International Accounting Firms
    • Consulting Firms
    • Key Computer and Software Related Firms
    • Major Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Systems Vendors
    • Major Database Systems Vendors
  • Discussion Questions
  • Problems and Exercises