Break out of your departmental bubble

Collaborating with people who aren’t accounting faculty can benefit your students.

By Sophie Hares

As employers increasingly hunt for newly minted graduates who can quickly slot into real-world roles, academics are giving their accounting students a head start by scouting out cross-departmental collaborations that build the business and digital skills students need to hit the ground running.

Many academics are tapping into their own networks to find ways to collaborate informally with other departments and set up hands-on, experiential opportunities for accounting students to apply their knowledge to realistic scenarios. Opportunities include projects with other departments and pro bono “clinics”.

These collaborations are not just expanding students’ experience and horizons. Bridging the gap between departments is helping create well-rounded, more employable graduates with a clear understanding of the role that various parts of a business play — a perspective that’s become more essential for accounting and finance students to have.

“More and more people are seeing the value of the collaborative approach, especially an interdisciplinary one,” said Elize Kirsten, ACMA, CGMA, senior lecturer in the Department of Financial Management at South Africa’s University of Pretoria.

Students “can watch a YouTube video to learn about debits and credits”, but it won’t help with their personal growth, she pointed out. For that, “you have to collaborate, you have to work with people”.

Here are some ways faculty can improve collaboration:

Swap textbooks for real-life challenges. Seek out collaborations that require students to adapt their accounting theory to real-world scenarios, said Celine Bray, senior lecturer and employability lead for accounting and finance at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol, UK.

She explained that when her law department colleagues mentioned that people using UWE’s legal pro bono services often needed reliable financial advice, the accounting and finance department quickly moved to set up a parallel accounting pro bono clinic. These two services have now merged into the Business and Law Clinic, a designated space and advice service assisting clients who are in the University’s ecosystem — and also wider external partners.

Run as an extracurricular activity, the pro bono work gives students the chance to give business advice to clients in authentic situations. It’s a popular add-on with around 40 students taking part since its inception in accounting.

Accountancy undergraduates also have the opportunity — together with law, marketing, and business students — to give students on UWE’s BA (hons) Business (Team Entrepreneurship) course the consultancy advice they need to help get their food delivery, clothing, and other startups off the ground.

Again, the relationship sprang from an informal conversation with the Team Entrepreneurship module leaders who reached out to see if their students could tap into the accounting department’s expertise on topics such as setting up companies and preparing financial statements.

Additionally, in the autumn semester, UWE law and accounting undergraduates teamed up to guide optometry students through the elements they need to consider when setting up and running their own businesses.

For the event, law and accounting students sketched out individual presentations and then rehearsed together before delivering them to the eye specialists at a training day.

“The key message that we tell our students is that the technical knowledge can be learned, but the soft skills — but we call them core skills — like communication, team working, problem-solving, have to be practised,” Bray said.

Make collaboration a two-way street. Structuring cross-department tie-ups so that both sides benefit will invariably make it easier to get buy-in and projects off the ground, academics said.

Kirsten explained how she worked with an engineering colleague to devise a project that saw their students work together on a combined challenge, which was then graded by the individual departments.

Engineering students were tasked with developing a prototype hot dog machine while financial management students ran financial projections, pricing, and sales forecasts that showed the challenge of getting the product to market. 

In a subsequent project that included medical faculty lecturers, the teams were tasked with designing and costing a low-cost wheelchair for people in rural areas.

“It was an eye-opening experience … not to just focus on number crunching,” Kirsten said.

“There was a lot of problem-solving and critical-thinking skills required. They had to see how the different theory components fit into the bigger picture.”

Prepare for some logistical challenges. Pulling off cross-departmental collaboration requires  enthusiasm, patience, and logistical wizardry to coordinate schedules and fit guest lectures around core courses. It often requires an enthusiastic champion such as a department head to spearhead projects and convince others to take part.

But while setting up collaborations can be time-consuming, they ultimately give academics the flexibility to add relevant topics to their existing curricula as employer demands swiftly change.

In South Africa, the University of Pretoria’s new Centre for the Future of Work will act as a hub to help better orchestrate logistics and resources to make it easier to set up collaborative projects, Kirsten said.

She now wants to collaborate with the University of Pretoria’s Department of Business Management to give her students an insight into data analytics. However, the challenge is to find a balance between giving students a solid introduction to complex topics and not overwhelming them with additional work, she explained.

“You have to convince people to move out of their comfort zones,” Kirsten said.

Expand your horizons beyond academic departments. Consider looking beyond fellow faculty members to find opportunities to give students more experience and inspiration.

At the UK’s UWE, the accounting department has teamed up with the university’s own CFO to set students’ ten-week-long practical projects that centre on real-life challenges such as meeting carbon-neutral goals, Bray explained.

Maintaining relationships with consultancy firms and other employers means the university can keep up with their latest requirements and respond by weaving topics such as cybersecurity into accountancy courses, she added.

Nimble collaborations are useful short-term fixes. For some universities, informal collaborations may be a stepping stone to new joint degree programmes.

In Poland, Poznan University of Economics and Business plans to introduce a combined accountancy and digital technology degree next year to meet employer demands, explained Remigiusz Napiecek, Ph.D., head of the Department of Management Accounting.

But he admits that for many academics, it’s quicker and more flexible to organise informal collaborations than to wait years for departments to get approvals for new courses and hammer out complex combined curricula.

“If I need support, I know who to contact because collaboration is there,” Napiecek said.

Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Spain. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.