New systems of survival

Management accountants have to be on top of the latest developments in IT

"Management accountants provide information to help make decisions about the running of a business. To produce the data managers need - often qualitative as well as quantitative - they may need to use sophisticated IT systems," says Louise Ross, advisory accountant at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

Management accountants have to use their judgement about what information is needed by their company directors, and how to collect, analyse and present it. They need to understand their company's information needs, design systems capable of collecting information and consider how to present it to management in the most appropriate format.

In this age of information, the collection and analysis of data needs to be undertaken quickly and intelligently, and that is why information technology is at the forefront of modern management accountancy. When studying for their CIMA qualification, management accountants learn the principles of financial and management accountancy. Financial accounting software covers basic book-keeping functions, aimed at producing final published accounts information and controlling fixed assets, while specific management accountancy software applications include budgeting, costing and forecasting, and investment appraisal.

As they grow in experience, management accountants may become involved in system design, as part of an in-house team; or will draw up the specifications for bespoke solutions provided by external suppliers. They are also often involved in the integration of different IT systems.

Despite what amounts to a strategic IT approach akin to a "systems analyst", management accountants are not generally "techies". They don't need to be able to build computers or write programs, but they do need to understand how IT can serve their organisation. Information technology is a key feature of the CIMA syllabus, but the fact that students are asked to explain the processes of system design, evaluate the use and relative merits of different hardware or analyse and identify opportunities for the use of information technology in organisations, speaks volumes about the management accountant's relationship with IT.

"Yes, IT is a useful tool," says George Glass, company secretary at Balfour Timber Limited and a member of CIMA's Council. "But in order to take advantage of what it has to offer, you have to understand the problem you're trying to solve, what exactly you're trying to achieve. From there on, you might be looking at the strengths and weaknesses of software packages, talking to software providers, drawing together the information so you can work out how to move forward."

While CIMA is not a tuition provider, it does quality assure the various colleges and other providers who actually teach CIMA students. In order to ensure management accountants are knowledgeable about IT, the CIMA syllabus specifies what students need to study and what they are expected to be able to do in order to be considered for CIMA membership. "At a basic level we expect all members to develop computer literacy using proprietary software packages, including spreadsheets and databases, the internet and corporate intranets," says Ross.

Members are also expected to have hands-on experience of defining the information requirements of the organisation; identifying and evaluating appropriate information systems and managing the process of information gathering, processing, storage and retrieval.

Because no two businesses work the same way, the tools the management accountants use can vary immensely. As Glass puts it, in terms of knowledge about software "the commonality finishes with Excel", meaning most management accountants get most of their hands-on IT training on the job. "The management accountant is driven by the environment he finds himself in, by the nature of the business and the information systems already in place. So detailed knowledge of particular software packages is less important than knowledge of what drives the business. The emphasis needn't rest with the technology - if you're reasonably competent, you can pick up new IT skills in no time. It's those principles of how to manage information that really count."

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