All in on Analytics

The School of Business transforms core graduate accounting curriculum to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s market needs

“Accountants today need more advanced and hands-on experience with data analytics,” said Jim Willis, associate dean of the School’s Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) program. “There’s a critical demand for accounting professionals who possess highly technical analytics skills, critical thinking, and the ability to tell a compelling story to influence business decisions.”

The School of Business listened to the market and heard leading industry experts express this desire for CPAs who not only understand a balance sheet but also confidently use business analytics to help advise and guide an organization. This input drove the School to ensure its graduate accounting curriculum provides all students leading-edge analytics instruction and real-world applications.

While some business schools have begun partnering or consulting with accounting firms to offer an analytics track to a handful of curated students, Wake Forest has integrated analytics into its core accounting curriculum. No matter which track students choose — assurance, tax, or the Wake Forest exclusive financial transaction services — they’ll gain a mastery of business analytics for their career.

“Employers need professionals who can think differently,” Willis said. “Our connection to the marketplace enables us to focus on understanding what clients need and teaching students how to deliver. We recently hired Deloitte’s Tom Aleman, a leading expert in the field, to join our existing colleagues with experience in analytics.”

Aleman brings practical, hands-on expertise in analytics and forensic technology to the classroom. He spent 36 years handling large and complex data projects with the Big Four. For 21 of those years, he served as a partner in advisory consulting services. He was formerly Deloitte’s U.S. National and Global Leader of Analytics and Forensic Technology Services.

“Incorporating analytics into accounting is more than crunching the data,” said Aleman. “It begins with asking the right questions and ensuring you’re collecting the right data to achieve the objectives and insights required.”

This fall, under Aleman’s guidance, students began the first of four analytics courses (see sidebar). Students like Kayla Miles (MSA ’19) know these courses will make an impact in their job searches and prepare them for their careers.

“The accounting profession is evolving constantly, and accountants are expected and required to provide services that include increasing elements of analytical work,” Miles said. “Learning about analytics at Wake Forest has been a learning curve for me, but I am very grateful that it is happening here instead of in the workplace. There will always be some new thing to learn, but I am learning to be open to adapting.”

Aleman’s connection to Wake Forest began with guest lectures in the forensics and auditing course taught by Associate Professor of Accountancy George Aldhizer, another faculty member at the School who specializes in analytics.

Phoebe Yu (MSA ’18) said an elective she took with Aleman last spring enabled her to dive deeply into analytics during her summer internship.

“When my manager put me on a difficult project that involved 20 years of financial data, I knew how to extract the valid data we wanted in just a simple click,” she said. “I believe my analytics skills will keep benefiting me as big data is an unstoppable trend in the workplace.”

Aleman’s lectures expanded on data analysis project work Aldhizer provided his students in detecting fraud, using drones for inventory, identifying kickbacks, and finding other red flags. “Finding 30-50 truly anomalous transactions among the tens of millions annually in a Fortune 500 company is virtually impossible without leading software tools,” Aldhizer said. “Using these software tools allows you to focus detailed testing on anomalies as opposed to random sampling.”

Aldhizer and Vice Dean Michelle Roehm piloted the data communications and presentations course last spring in preparation for this increased focus on analytics in accounting. “Our graduates serve as business advisors,” Willis said. “By bringing this analytics point of view to their expertise, our graduates will be able to make an impact within the organizations that hire them. Their ability to think differently and ask the right business questions will enable them to transcend traditional roles and help guide decision making on a broader scale.”

Stacey Dorogy (MSA ’19) agreed. “Having exposure to analytics in a classroom setting provides students with a competitive advantage in the job market. It puts Wake Forest students at the forefront of this period of discovery, giving us an unparalleled advantage.”

Analytics in Four Courses

1. The Intro to Analytics course establishes concepts in data analytics, big data, visualization, and presentation. Students learn to ask the right business questions so they know they have the right data to examine.

2. The second course teaches students how to request and extract data from different systems or applications. Students work with messy data and handle issues related to the four V’s of big data: volume, variety, velocity, and veracity.

3. The third course concentrates on data visualization with an emphasis on not only mastering tech tools like Tableau and Alteryx, but also the science of visuals and the ethics of visualization.

4. In the capstone course, students focus on how best to communicate the analysis they have learned to develop. They demonstrate they have learned how to ask the right questions, solve business issues, find insights, and communicate them to inform the organization’s decisions.