My personal resonance with the above statement conjures up images of a goose-stepping John Cleese, one of the hilariously gifted Monty Python members and a skit entitled ‘The Funniest Joke in the World’. The joke was so funny that it was deadly. It ended up used as a weapon delivered across enemy lines by khaki-clad foot soldiers.
There are those reading this that will resonate with me – maybe a chuckle or two for old times’ sake. There are those who will have no resonance at all – either through a disregard for Monty Python’s slapstick humour or of an age where Monty Python is a reference accessed on You Tube.
It would not take Sherlock Holmes to determine that the author of this article is in the 50+ age bracket. As an age group, we should be applauded for surviving and prospering through 3 decades of unparalleled transformation and change. While empathy is scant from our finger tapping Facebook using Twitter communicating 20+ children the evidence of change is mind blowing.
My first steps in the noble profession of accounting were in the employ of a small accounting and audit firm in Oxford Circus in London. Computers were largely non-existent. Accounting was done through the manual entry of relevant numbers in aesthetically pleasing leather bound ledger books. These books were works of art. The first days of any new job were spent extrapolating the numbers from the ledger on to 8 column stationery. You became skilled in identifying where your Trial Balance didn’t balance. Gaining a thorough understanding of double entry and the picture the numbers were creating.
A particular memory was of a practitioner called Harry. Harry seemed ancient to us being in the 50+ age bracket back then. He only had one suit; identifiable by the biscuit stains that permeated the left lapel of the cross thread tweed. Harry looked after all the Chinese restaurants. The records arrived in boxes and in Chinese. He translated them to double entry and English. He delivered an accounting story that was accepted by the Revenue authorities. He was a skilled professional and worth a fortune to his clients. Harry made me realise that our noble profession is more about artistry and interpretation than computation and certainty.
From the leather bound ledgers of not so long ago to where we are today. Memories of collecting information in strict sequence to be delivered to a computational beast that took the place of balancing the Trial Balance. Moving onto the first laptop, the floppy disk (what happened to them?), the internet to cloud-based accounting packages like Xero. The way we do things has inextricably changed for the better. Making a trial balance was numerically satisfying but a poor and expensive use of human resource.
The art of accounting has not changed. At a fundamental level accounting is about the concepts of communication and value. Conventions have been developed to try and standardise how we communicate the interpretation of value. But it can never entirely succeed, it can never be standard. In fact, it is arguable that this standardisation has made things less understandable not more.
Value is dictated by circumstance. A major asset in your balance sheet can easily become a major threat to your business e.g. a large debtor develops financial problems. Business is done through the interaction of human beings using the language of money measured by numbers. It is not the compilation of the numbers that is important but the interpretation. It is being able to communicate well the business story the numbers are telling. Technology is doing the compiling to allow us to do the interpreting.
You cannot separate numbers from the human aspects of operating a business. We come in all shapes, sizes, personalities, belief systems and values. Human beings will never come standard. Over the years there have been many theoretically valid generic products that have failed due to the human element. The most valuable professionals engender trust through values of integrity and objectivity. They understand and relate on a human level while communicating their skills.
I have no doubt that Harry would be as valuable today as he was in his day. His thorough understanding and personal skills would just be engaged more productively. If we could bring Harry back, he would probably think that this modern day way of carrying on was nothing more than ‘The Funniest Joke in the World’….