Up, up and away: accountants arm for business

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Accountants have endured the bean-counter label for long enough. The sought-after accountant of the future will be either a navigator, a centurion or T-shaped.

No, this is not "Who wants to be a superhero" but the kind of attributes that the city will be looking for by 2020, according to the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), which surveyed the views of 900 members and finance professionals.

The navigator is focused on helping guide the organization through complexity; the centurion protects against enterprise-wide risks and assesses the risk-opportunity balance; the T-shaped professional has broad based business management skills matched with a transferable,
specialist technical expertise; and the entrepreneur thrives on unearthing and realising opportunities for business success. Last but not least is the technical specialist, whose role is all in the name.

While you have a decade to get in character, the survey demonstrates the need for today's accountants to start arming themselves with just as much business savvy as financial knowledge if they want to thrive, says the ACCA.

"Accounts are integral to all parts of any enterprise and their role in driving change, driving efficiency, aiding decision making and strategy formulation is fast evolving," says Tony Osude, ACCA's head of learning and development. "They are at the forefront of change, hence the need for them to evolve their knowledge, skills and expertise with it."

The trend for embracing business acumen has been gathering pace for a number of years. That's not to say that more traditional skills such as financial reporting, budgeting and taxation have fallen by the wayside - in fact there is evidence to suggest these are becoming more specialized
- it's more that they're being taken for granted in favor of seeking out softer skills such as communication and negotiation.

Chris Jackson, the head of finance and management faculty at the ICAEW, says his department has been tracking these changes for at least a decade. The area that stands out as showing the most growth, however, is the business partner model role. This is where a finance team or individual forms a close bond with management to really understand and
help create business value.

"The accountant can provide objectivity and analysis, working with the manager to help identify where the real business drivers are that are adding value and also bring out the fallacies," says Jackson.

"It's about the broader perspective rather than just accounting," adds Richard Mallett, director of technical development at CIMA, who highlights how important areas such as strategic planning, competitor analysis, project management and risk management have become to its members.

"You are actually involved in the business rather than being a spectator, which is much more interesting and exciting than just looking at historical information and financial statements."

It takes two
And it's not all one-way traffic. Business managers are taking a much bigger interest in financial matters, aside from how much money the company is making and departmental budgets.

"There is more emphasis on shareholder value creation," Mallett continues. "If you're bringing a proposal to the board of a major company and don't have a financial justification or explanation associated with it then it probably won't go through. Therefore, the people presenting those proposals and asking for resources need to have a better knowledge about that then they did 10 years ago.

"In marketing, for instance, they are being asked to prove and justify their worth. That not only involves financial accounting but the use of other statistics, progressions and evaluations."

In an effort to get a better insight into employers needs and translate this into education for its members, CIMA has crafted a decision-making forum involving leading companies which specifically looks at how finance functions are changing and how this relates to other areas of business.

Osude also emphasises how critical it is to manage relations with investors, stakeholders and outsourcing partners, as well as ensuring high levels of corporate governance, for sustainable competitive advantage in the business world.

"There is a growing recognition that finance issues are very important to the organisation and most roles within it," he says. "However, accountants are now much better at communicating finance issues in an accessible manager such that non-finance people don't need a great level of expertise but rather an understanding of the impact of a particular issue on their business area."

Research by the ICAEW last year revealed that when it comes to what financial professionals want from their qualifications, budgeting, finance function effectiveness, financial modelling and forecasting were among those at the top of the agenda. When it comes to the business side, though, managing people and teams, personal skills and communication were the main priority.

The gap between the two entities is already shrinking. "Finance professionals are making themselves more relevant to the business and accessing the skills that make them relevant," says Jackson.

However, he adds one caveat in bringing finance and business together. Any person holding the purse strings is between the rock and hard place of trying to make good, creative ideas financial viable but also making less popular decisions about spending curbs when necessary.

"If you are going to be the conscience of your company you also have to step back with objectivity and integrity. It's the ability to stand back with a cold voice of reason," says Jackson. "You have to get the balance right between being apart from the business and being inside it."

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