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June 16, 2008 1:09 am

Accountancy: Business skills and mobility give you the edge

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Anybody can call themselves an accountant, but a recognised qualification generally guarantees proper training, experience and professional standards. Although there are global accounting practices serving global clients, the accountancy bodies that oversee training are almost entirely domestic.

The profession is largely represented by national bodies that meet the needs of their domestic market, or a sector of it. Most accountants work in-house for companies or organisations in the private, public or voluntary sectors. Those employed by accountancy firms specialise in areas very different from each other, such as auditing, taxation, insolvency or forensic accounting. Each has different training requirements.

“We are not trying to educate accountants to work anywhere in the world, but to work in their own national environment,” says Jim Sylph, executive director of professional standards at the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC).

“It is quite appropriate for each member body to set an accounting syllabus that represents what their user market is looking for.”

Although the widespread adoption of international accounting standards is making global training easier, he points out that taxation is a national issue, therefore, accountancy training naturally tends to occur at a national level.

IFAC describes itself as “the global organisation for the accountancy profession”. It has 157 member and affiliated bodies, all accountancy associations, from around the world. Collectively, these have 2.5m members, in all areas of the profession. IFAC sets necessarily very broad standards for education programmes, including continuing professional education and lifelong learning.

One of its members with extensive international reach is the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), which examines students in 170 countries. It has 122,000 members, 60 per cent in industry and commerce, 30 per cent in public practice and 10 per cent in the public sector and academia.

The rather smaller Association of International Accountants has 16,000 members.

“A global footprint is essential,” says Allen Blewitt, chief executive of ACCA. “Numbers get you to the table and make people take you seriously, but influence is more important.”

Accountancy training is not just about the initial qualification. IFAC’s Mr Sylph says the big challenge is keeping accountants up to date as the world changes around them. “The trend is to play down the technical material and emphasise more strategy and management,” says Peter Walton, professor of accounting at the Open University Business School, a big “distance teaching” institution in the UK. It is these strategic and managerial skills that can give the big global practices a competitive edge.

“It takes only three years to qualify, but most people have a much longer career with the firm, so a broader view of the training is required,” says Ann Kilbride, associate partner for global learning at Deloitte. “Passing examinations shrinks into insignificance. What is important is to develop people to be great accountants and auditors.”

Similarly, at PwC the concept of the “business adviser” runs right through from newly-qualified accountant to partner. This encompasses business skills, such as managing teams, coaching and appraising people.

“Market research with clients and potential clients indicates that the quality of our business and relationship skills differentiates us from others,” says Mick Holbrook, the firm’s director of people development. “They determine the length of time that the business relationship exists, so there are huge financial implications.”

Similarly, global training at KPMG concentrates on values, skills and behaviours. However, it sees a mobile workforce as the main strategic thrust. The lack of portability of national qualifications is a barrier to mobility.

“It presents challenges within the profession,” says Michael Walby, senior training manager at KPMG.

“We need to be able to get our resource to the opportunities, irrespective of geographical boundaries. The profession needs to work together across the various institutes to take advantage of future opportunities.”

“If you get training right, it can make a significant difference to competitive advantage,” says Ms Kilbride, “especially in small or emerging markets that have rapid growth and face challenges to consistency and quality because of a rapid influx of people”.

According to Mr Blewitt, increasingly employers want people who can move around the world, with a common accounting language and set of standards and ethics.

“There is a seemingly inexhaustible demand from developing nations,” he says.

“They need the discipline of a qualified accounting profession so they can continue to attract inward investment and aid from agencies such as the World Bank.”

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