The Future of the Profession: Hassan Yazdifar Explains the Findings of His Research into the Changing Roles of Management Accountants in Both Independent Companies and Subsidiary Firms

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The days of score-keeping and corporate policing are long gone for professional accountants in business, it seems, and they are being welcomed into consulting roles. That's the main finding of a postal survey in which I sought the views of management accountants working in independent UK companies and subsidiary firms.

The questionnaires were designed to determine what they thought would be the key tasks of a management accountant up until 2010; the main tools and techniques required to do these tasks; and the skills they would need. It also investigated how they thought non-financial managers perceived them.

Key roles

Respondents were asked to indicate the five tasks that they expected to be most important for them in the future. The 13 tasks (out of 32) that most of them chose are shown in table 1.

Overall, business performance evaluation was rated as the most important role. Accountants in independent companies thought that cost control and improving profitability would also be among their most crucial tasks. Those working in subsidiaries showed stronger support for interpreting/ presenting management accounts and strategic planning and decision-making.

Tools and techniques

Respondents were asked to indicate five management accounting methods that they expected to become the most important in their organisations. The top 13 they chose are shown in table 2.

The two groups broadly agreed about the importance of budgets, strategic management accounting, variance analysis, and rolling forecasts, but opinions differed on newer techniques. Respondents in independent companies were more supportive of total quality management than those in subsidiaries, who were keener on activity-based costing and balanced scorecards. They also rated standard costing and economic value added more highly.

Skills requirements

Respondents were asked to indicate five skills that they expected to become most important to them in future. The ten they deemed to be most significant are shown in table 3.

There was wide agreement that analytical/interpretive skill would be the most vital. Management accountants in independent companies were more likely to choose IT knowledge, integrating financial and non-financial information and strategic thinking than those in subsidiaries, who showed stronger support for broad business knowledge, teamwork and change management.

The view of respondents in subsidiaries that change management will be one of the most crucial skills could stem partly from the role of their parent companies. These accountants are more likely to have experienced, or to be experiencing, change programmes imposed by parent companies.

Perceptions of non-financial managers

Respondents were asked to indicate how they thought non-financial managers perceived management accountants in their organisations. They were given three options to tick: "totally disagree", "some agreement" and "totally agree". The results are shown in table 4.

The responses do not suggest any fundamental difference of views between management accountants in independent companies and those in subsidiary firms. It is worth noting that respondents in independent companies were more likely to think they were seen as business analysts, partners or advocates. Those in subsidiaries were more likely to think they were perceived as bean-counters, corporate police and score-keepers.

The responses imply that independent companies require management accountants to be more proactive in strategic decision-making and encourage them to integrate themselves in process-orientated managerial teams. Some researchers label these people as hybrid accountants who aid the integration of process teams. Such roles are a long way from the number-cruncher image that some respondents still thought was more prevalent in subsidiary firms. This old-fashioned view is interesting because it lends credence to the idea that management accountants in subsidiaries are seen as good only for producing accounts for parent companies. …