At a glance
By Adam Turner
Structured Query Language, or SQL, is a programming language used to access and manage structured data stored in relational databases.
Developed in the 1970s, SQL is well-suited for use with complex databases, such as those used by enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. It’s also handy for working with larger volumes of data than spreadsheets can comfortably handle.
Purely used for manipulating data, SQL is a simpler language than the likes of Python and R, which are general-purpose and statistical programming languages, respectively.
Use SQL to reach across a business
One of SQL’s strengths is the ability to connect directly to multiple live business systems such as finance, ERP, operations, procurement, sales and marketing. This is ideal for accountants, says Dr Richard Busulwa, accounting lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology.
SQL allows accountants to bring together up-to-date data from across the business for analysis. It also allows them to test, clean and update the data stored in those various business systems, says Busulwa, who also co-wrote Digital Transformation in Accounting.
“With appropriate data access authorisation, SQL allows accountants to reach data in virtually any part of the business,” he says.
“The ability to write back into those databases means accounts can also fix issues, making business data more accurate and reliable. This allows accountants to fulfil their growing roles in data integrity and assurance.”
While accountants may only work with a business’s financial data for some tasks, SQL makes it easier for them to undertake more comprehensive and rigorous analysis.
For example, they might examine customer and sales data to identify the specific accounts and salespeople who are contributing less to reported gross margins.
“Manually extracting and cross-referencing that data from different business systems is a slow and cumbersome process,” Busulwa says.
“SQL is designed exactly for this kind of big, complex, multi-database and diverse data challenge.
“It means accountants can spend less time gathering data and more time resolving data integrity issues, interpreting data and validating insights to support decision-making.”
Use SQL to uncover deeper data insights
Using SQL for data analysis provides a more secure, flexible and robust environment than Excel, with enhanced permissions and auditing features.
Direct access to up-to-date data also reduces an accountant’s reliance on other business members to facilitate data access, validate data or generate reports.
SQL can streamline cross-departmental financial processes, improve data accuracy and allow accountants to find more meaning in large volumes of data, says Barry Sullivan, tax technology and innovation partner at KPMG.
While SQL can pull data from databases into Excel, it enables accountants to manage, analyse and extract valuable insights from data more powerfully than with Excel, Sullivan says.
“SQL enables accountants to pull together disparate sources of data and look at the big picture, such as identifying trends and detecting anomalies,” he says.
“It empowers accountants to spend less time crunching numbers and more time understanding the business, so they can deliver insights to support improved decision-making.”
While entry-level accountants may have little need for SQL, it becomes an invaluable tool in more senior roles. Almost any experience with databases or with other programming languages makes learning SQL easier.
Even accountants who are only familiar with the advanced capabilities of Excel can pick up the basics of SQL in as little as a few weeks, adds Busulwa.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s much more complex than learning Excel formulas,” he says.
“If you’ve already got a good grasp of high-end Excel features then you should be confident to turn your hand to learning SQL.
“Using SQL to tackle more complex tasks can require a good understanding of wider business know-how, so you understand what data might be meaningful and how to best analyse it.”
Use advanced tools to deliver business value
The role of accountants and the value they offer is changing as businesses in every sector look to leverage their data as a competitive advantage.
As such, accountants who are not embracing more advanced tools are limiting the value they can offer businesses, and potentially their own career progression, says Sullivan.
“Whether you’re looking to move jobs or step up into a new role, you’re potentially hampering your opportunities if you’re limiting yourself to traditional tools like Excel,” Sullivan says.
“As technology encroaches on more of accounting’s low-end number-crunching tasks, learning how to harness the power of tools like SQL ensures accountants are still in a position to drive value and be an asset to the business.”