Fast Track: Figuring it all out

Paul Gosling looks at what counts in the world of accountancy

ACCOUNTANTS, IT seems, cannot break away from their stereotyped image. For all the hype in recent years about accountancy being a dynamic profession that is central to modernising management practices, the results of a new survey reveal that old priorities still come out on top. Personality is not what employers want in their accountants - being able to count is, well, what counts.

In other respects, though, the demands on accountants are changing. Accountants are now expected to be wizards with information technology. Moreover, they should learn to work from a variety of IT platforms, and be capable of using several software packages.

One of the most important skills for today's accountant is to present complex financial information in a clear and relevant way to directors and managers, using new technology.

The other key skill highlighted in the latest survey strongly reflects the modern commercial environment. Accountants should learn transferable skills, enabling them and their employers to adapt to new and changing situations and contexts.

The New Accountants Skill Survey was conducted by the Institute of Financial Accountants together with the Edexcel Foundation, which is responsible for the BTEC higher national diploma in business and finance - a two-year, degree-level qualification with a strong emphasis on practical content and work placement - and the parallel part-time national certificate. The diploma is offered by 240 further and higher education institutes, including most of the former polytechnics, with more than 20,000 students studying it.

Survey results are being presented on Friday to an Independent-sponsored conference of recruitment agents, other accountancy institutes and education tutors. The findings will influence the future curriculum and examinations for the diploma.

Angela Hockley, business development manager for Edexcel, initially proposed the survey and helped analyse it. She was surprised by the results. She says: "We hoped to show that there wasn't the same need now for mathematical skills, but that did not come out at all. Instead, we found that design and creative skills are required as well, to give presentations using IT. Much of accountants' work is not just about number-crunching, but about finding creative solutions either for their own employers, or as accountants advising clients."

One of the aspects of the survey that surprised Edexcel and the IFA was the extent of changed expectations from when it was last conducted, five years before. Employers and recruitment agents now want much more from accountants, who are increasingly expected to provide whole-business solutions and be team players with other managers.

The results reinforce the previously stated view of the Confederation of British Industry that accountancy training should provide a wider skill base than has traditionally been the case. It also, says Edexcel, reinforces the need for a broad curriculum, compared with the narrower focus of the Qualification Curriculum Authority, which regulates the examinations.

Philip Dunn, a senior moderator with the IFA and an IFA council member, has also been working on a complementary exercise to provide more effective teaching on the courses.

The highly specialised nature of the courses - with separate modules specialising in cost, management and tax accounting and auditing - means that many colleges are dependent on part-time lecturers. "For example, not many colleges will have a need to employ someone full-time to lecture on tax. It may be that a person coming in from outside to lecture on tax could use off-the-shelf materials."

Mr Dunn hopes his work will help the IFA to become better known, and more highly regarded. Although the IFA was established in 1916 as the Institute of Book-keepers and is older than some of the major accountancy institutes, it has been treated rather as a second-tier body. It is determined to challenge that view.

The IFA is lobbying to be recognised by the European Union as a professional body, threatening legal action if recognition is not awarded.

It also wants to join the sector's joint consultancy forum, the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies, which contains the three chartered institutes of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, together with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Leon Hopkins, the editor of the IFA's journal Financial Accountant, argues that the IFA's qualification is well respected by businesses, although the qualification is different from that of the other institutes. IFA students are often more mature, with greater work experience.

"The other institutes' exams need employer support, which the IFA doesn't have, so it is unlikely to be the first choice for graduates," he says. "But it is a good choice for people who find themselves in accountancy in their mid to late twenties."

Hugh Laing, the newly appointed chairman of the IFA's council, plans a more aggressive campaign to promote the IFA and its sister body, the International Association of Book-keepers. "We have to concentrate on shouting much louder about ourselves than we have in recent years."

The IFA conference, sponsored by `The Independent', is tomorrow at the Kennedy Hotel, Cardington Street, London NW1

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