Finance: Designs on success

TWO DECADES after they first appeared in significant numbers in Britain, BMW cars remain the choice of the style-conscious. Yet while the appeal of the car marketed as "the ultimate driving machine" may be mainly visual, BMW design goes beyond the graceful curves on the surface.

As Tony Dart, technical director at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, points out, design in this case is not something added on at the end to beautify a product that might otherwise seem rather dull; it is integral to the whole production process.

And it involves more than the close cooperation of designers and production engineers. As Mr Dart sees it, accounting has a clear role to play at the "front end" too.

Part of what made BMWs attractive 20-odd years ago was that that they were perceived to be well-made and reliable at a time when many other makes were not. Yes, the strength of this image enabled them to command a premium price - demonstrating the importance of marketing - but there was also a strong foundation in that the cars were put together more simply than those of their competitors.

And this, says Mr Dart, reflects a cost-consciousness that demonstrates how accountants and engineers can work together to good effect. With increasing world competition leading to the replacement of cost-led pricing - in particular, the old "cost-plus" approach long associated with defence contractors - by price-led costing, such co-operation is becoming vital.

"Engineers know quite a lot about costing, and management accountants know quite a lot about engineering - and there's a huge overlap in the middle," says Mr Dart.

That is why his institute is teaming up with the Design Council to sponsor a three-year research programme aimed at discovering various ways in which the two disciplines can work together. The Accounting for Design programme, which will run until 2002, will finance academics from various centres to look at a number of areas of common interest.

The Design Council, meanwhile, is demonstrating its commitment to showing how design can complement other disciplines, by organising, with Marketing magazine, a conference on designing and marketing "world-beating products", to be held in London next week.

And it is almost inevitable that the Ford Ka, the Heathrow Express train service and other case studies that will be featured will involve an important - if largely unsung - contribution from finance people.

As well as complementing the institute's technical studies - which examine best practice - the research programme should also help to break down the divide between accountants and other finance people on the one hand and engineers and designers on the other.

One of the clearest manifestations of this split is the widely-held view that many of Britain's industrial problems stem from there being too many accountants and not enough engineers at the top of companies. The obvious comparison is with Germany, which is perceived to have many more engineers running companies.

But Mr Dart, himself an engineer who has also qualified as a management accountant, believes the contrast is overstated, and possibly has more to do with how engineers promote themselves in the two countries.

For now, however, he is keen to promote the benefits of breaking down the divide. And the fact that companies of all sorts are under pressure to streamline their production processes, so that different disciplines are working in an integrated fashion rather than in isolation, might explain - at least, in part - why management accountants continue to be in great demand.

In the latest survey by the recruitment consultants Robert Half International, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants qualification was cited by more than half of employers expressing a preference.

As Mr Dart says, management accountants have great experience of being involved in the thinking through of business planning and processes. Pointing out that they "like to be at the front of things", he adds that they have a particular part to play in an activity traditionally known as "value engineering".

It is typical to make much of how much of a project's cost the engineering stage is soaking up. But Mr Dart stresses that "it is important to get it right at the beginning" - and part of this is value engineering, where accountants can play a creative role in making the process as cost-effective as possible. "It's about getting it right first, not just accounting for it afterwards," he says. n Details of the Accounting for Design programme can be obtained from the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, on 0171 637 2311. Marketing/Design Council What's the Big Idea? conference takes place at London's Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 8 June.

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