A User-Oriented Focus to Evaluating Accountants' Writing Skills

Article excerpt

During the last 25 years, researchers have attempted to identify the writing deficiencies of accountants. Results of these studies frequently influence the structure of writing agendas prepared by accounting educators. However, prior research results may be of limited usefulness in curriculum development because most of these studies relied almost exclusively on accounting practitioners and academics as subjects. This article argues for additional research based on a user-oriented focus. Specifically, this paper (a) briefly reviews the accounting writing skill research, (b) discusses the subject bias prevalent in previous communication skill research, and (c) relates this weakness to a potential bias toward grammar and syntax in curriculum development. Educators and researchers will find this article useful for the insight that it provides into issues that affect curriculum and research development.

The Writing Skills of Accountants

Tables 1 and 2 list the major research studies conducted in the field of written accounting communication. The survey research in Table 1 suggests that accountants' writing skills are a function of the following factors: formal educational level attained, years since formal education completed, frequency of writing skill usage in daily work, type of accountant, technical proficiency for job position held, reasoning and problem-solving skills, and speaking and listening skills. This literature proposes that accountants with higher levels of formal education have better writing skills than those with less education. Recently graduated accountants appear comfortable with the adequacy of their writing abilities, while practitioners with more than 10 years of experience are more negative about the training received. Research results also indicate that experienced accountants spend more time on technical writing. Accountants can be divided into two groups: those who write general correspondence for nonaccountant users and those who engage in technical, financial analysis and report preparation (Gingras, 1987).

The nonsurvey research summarized in Table 2 provides evidence that knowledge, reasoning ability, and listening skills influence accountants' writing. These factors appear to affect the understanding of subject matter and may lead to the efficient completion of problem-solving processes that result in better written communication (Orem & Burns, 1988). Rebele (1985) suggests that the perceived importance of writing for career advancement influences the writing abilities of newly-hired accountants.

Historical Research Bias

The historical bias is discussed in the following sections in terms of potential sample bias, the effect of bias on the accounting profession, and the influences on prior research-method choice.

Potential Sample Bias

Research results are often significant considerations when developing curriculum. A major shortcoming of prior studies is the nature and composition of the population evaluated. In most every study performed, subjects were members of the accounting community: either practitioners, educators, accounting students, or governmental and management accountants. While it cannot be disputed that accountants do communicate with one another, research appears to have overlooked the end-user of the accountant's product in determining the adequacy of communication skills. Recently, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) noted the importance of the reader's background, subject knowledge, interests, and concerns in written communication (DeLeo & Letourneau, 1994). In conjunction with the restructuring of the Uniform CPA exam, the AICPA published six characteristics of effective writing in their December 1992 Exposure Draft, Information for CPA Candidates. These traits were coherent organization, conciseness, clarity, use of standard English, responsiveness to the requirements of the question, and appropriateness for the reader. …