Finance: Engine room vs boardroom

Management accountants are on a roll. Time to rationalise the training?
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The Independent Culture
IGNORE FOR the moment the need to rationalise the governance of accountancy, and it is hard to see why the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (Cima) is even considering throwing in its lot with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (Acca) and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa).

By common consent, the management accountants are on a roll. Chartered accountants have tended to look down on a qualification that is associated with factory floors and the engine rooms, rather than boardrooms, of business. But leading firms are now starting to share the views of the recruitment consultants who have for some time been stressing the value of management accountancy to a whole range of businesses.

With the Institute of Chartered Accountants' latest plans to update its training syllabus in danger of being jeopardised by the traditionalists, at least one executive with a Big Five firm has let it be known that his operation would be interested in shifting numbers from the institute's training scheme if a viable alternative emerged.

Such views are a vindication of the vision of Peter Layhe, president of Cima, to create out of his organisation, Acca and Cipfa, a body that can rival the institute in size and influence.

However, it is fair to say that the most attractive specialisms would be likely to be management accountancy. The certified qualification is hugely popular overseas, but tends to be regarded in the UK as a second fiddle to the Institute's, and the transformation of public sector accounting into something closer to that practised in the private sector may be reducing the need for a full-blown separate qualification.

But management accountancy is, as James Wheeler, chief executive of Hewitson- Walker, points out, popular "in the market at large". By which he means business as a whole, as opposed to the "mini-markets" of the City and public practice.

But, he adds, even investment banks have begun taking on graduates with the aim of putting them through management accountancy training because they have not been totally satisfied with newly qualified chartered accountants.

All these organisations are seeing the high "added value" in the report- writing skills, budgeting and analysis - combined with practical IT skills - that are the management accountant's stock-in-trade.

Jeff Grout, managing director of Robert Half International, says that the popularity of the qualification is largely a "reflection of the changing role of the accountant". The chartered accountant's training may be more rigorous, but the management accountant is reckoned to be "more practical, more commercial and more relevant".

But it is not just employers who are seeing the value of the qualification. Recruitment consultants report that many graduates who previously would unthinkingly have gone off to the top firms, even if they intended to go into business later, are now opting to go straight there.

People are making a "much more balanced decision about whether to go through chartered accountancy or to go out into the big wide world", says Mr Wheeler.

Mr Grout agrees. There is, he says, a growing appreciation that they may get a wider education through Cima than through the chartered route - though he adds that, highly rated as the management accountancy qualification is in Britain, it is not nearly as well known overseas as the chartered. In an effort to correct this, his company is organising seminars in European cities to explain the role of management accountants.

If foreign companies get that message, then his conviction that management accountancy is "the passport to a career in business" can be borne out.