Counting More, Counting Less: The New Role of Management Accountants

Article excerpt

The management accounting profession has made a quantum leap. Over the past 10 years, management accountants have been transformed from "bean counters" and "corporate cops" on the periphery of business decision making to "business partners" and valued team members at the very center of strategic activity. Escalating change in the profession in the past five years continues to enhance the role of management accountants in a growing number of American companies and to increase the value of their contribution to business.

Counting More, Counting Less: Transformations in the Management Accounting Profession, the report of IMA's 1999 professional practice analysis, documents the coordinates of change and provides a detailed vision of the profession's direction. This information is invaluable to the profession, because it addresses current needs and plans for the future, and to individual management accountants as a benchmark for career development within their organizations. (You can download the complete report from IMA's website:

As the first in a monthly series about the results and implications of the practice analysis, this column focuses on the nature of the change - on the contrast between the old and the new.

MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTING IN 1989. From the dawn of the profession until the early 1990s, management accountants were in corporate staff positions. As such, they were outsiders to their companies' central work. They were physically separated from the operating departments and had relatively little face-to-face communication with people in line positions.

Management accountants weren't participants in the decision-making process. They were often informed of decisions after the fact. Most of their time was spent in the mechanical aspects of accounting. They manually summed and balanced pages upon pages of multicolumn paper spreadsheets. They prepared budgets, checked expense reports, produced inventory cost reports, and generated a variety of standardized financial statements. They were, in fact, the scorekeepers, the bean counters, the corporate cops. Fulfilling the traditional accountant role, they were the keepers of financial records, the historians of the organization.

MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTING IN 1999. The role of management accountants is very different in 1999. Growing numbers spend most of their time as consultants or business analysts within their companies.

Technological advances have liberated them from the mechanical aspects of accounting. They spend less time preparing standardized reports and more time analyzing and interpreting information. Many have moved out from the isolation of accounting departments and are now positioned in operating departments where they work on cross-functional teams, have extensive face-to-face communication with people throughout the organization, and are actively involved in decision making.

In many organizations, management accountants take on leadership roles on their teams. …