With the explosion in IT investment over the last ten years, IT skills have become an important specialist area for accountants in both business and practice.
Being able to diagnose and rectify millennium-related problems could add thousands to the fees of IT-aware accountants and open the door to a lucrative consultancy sideline.
All businesses have woken up to IT and surveys show the first people they turn to for advice are often accountants. The most common query concerns which software to buy and how to install it, but the growing buzz around electronic commerce clears the path for providing advice on establishing a profitable website.
To tackle this corporate assault course, auditing and tax experience alone are not enough – just ask the Big Five firms that lobbied for the English ICA to reform its training syllabus. Following the failure of the electives proposals, accountancy institutes are still being pressured to provide more relevant IT training.
Where to get training
Given accountancy’s main entry qualification does not cater for IT specialisation, where can people go for the right IT training and what skills should they be developing?
Despite the electives setback the English ICA continues to play a role in ensuring members receive practical IT training. The institute insists each practice has a designated training officer to ensure the firm’s staff get appropriate training.
‘Other institutes are expanding their IT syllabuses but this is not necessarily the same thing as IT training,’ says Phil Armitage, director of education and training at the English ICA. ‘Our emphasis is on IT training in the workplace.’
This allows students the option of studying IT skills in depth, for instance as an IT auditor.
In 2001 the English ICA plans to introduce a compulsory advanced paper on knowledge management and IT. This will include fast-growing areas such as e-commerce and website development.
But what about the IT needs of more experienced members? Armitage points to the advanced diploma in IT which was introduced in May for members with over five years’ experience in IT.
In order to receive the diploma, members must be able to demonstrate experience and in-depth knowledge of nine different areas including IT strategy and systems software. Evidence of advanced learning is also required and this could be demonstrated through membership of the British Computer Society or a relevant degree.
According to Armitage, the practical emphasis of the certificate will carry more weight than a Masters qualification or a degree in technology.
‘Our diploma shows hands-on experience of IT but it also has a structured assessment. A Masters degree is not the same,’ he says.
Institutes such as CIMA and ACCA stress the need for a generalist IT knowledge allowing accountants to advise clients on the benefits of software and hardware systems.
IT is central in CIMA’s new syllabus, which comes into force next September.
This will build on existing skills such as databases as well as areas such as e-commerce.
Steve Matthews, head of CIMA’s new syllabus project, argues that IT skills are one way for people in the finance department to hold onto power as other finance functions, such as payroll, are outsourced.
‘The concept of an aloof finance department doing historical accounting is no longer true,’ he says. ‘Traditional functions have been outsourced to shared services centres and so accountants need more specialist and softer skills like IT.’
Continuing professional development provides another route for picking up career-enhancing IT skills. CIMA, for instance, offers IT Masters courses ranging from managing IT projects to instruction on the analytical capabilities of business intelligence software.
CIMA’s website also signposts members to postgraduate IT qualifications and divisional branches hold special seminars on IT topics.
In May, the government placed IT training on the national agenda when it launched an accreditation scheme to improve IT advice to small business. The Adviser Skills Initiative is open to all business advisers and is backed by heavyweights such as Microsoft, the English ICA and CIMA. But it has already run into controversy. One management accountant warned it would merely increase paperwork, and software trade association BASDA predicted the scheme would not stand the test of time.
The main message to emerge from IT training seems to be do-it-yourself.
The training needs of an accountant working for a FTSE 100 company will be different to those of a company accountant working for a small business in Slough.
One source of training is the software companies themselves. Sage, the market leader for desktop accountancy software, has six UK training centres with more in the pipeline.
All courses relate to its different accounting and budgeting packages, such as WinForecast for cashflow forecasting and Sage Line 50, its accounting package for smaller companies.
One-day courses are priced at £200 per person with a group session for 40 accountants costing £2,000 per day.
Having introduced free Internet access for its users, Sage is now expanding the number of Internet-related courses it provides.
Georgie Cameron, head of Sage’s public affairs, says smaller practices often miss getting the correct training as staff cannot be spared from the office. ‘It’s more difficult for small practices to get training because of the pressures of time,’ she says.
Accountancy firms are also muscling in on the training market. Levy Gee, the top 30 chartered accountant has a spin-off training business called PASS Training.
PASS, which works with ACCA, CIMA and the English ICA, offers training in two areas – small business accounting software and Microsoft standards.
One-day courses take place at either a PASS centre or the firms’ offices.
Perhaps the most useful course for accountants with SME clients is the accountancy software course. Described as a hands-on course, it advises clients on which software to choose and how to get the most from it. Geoff Wood, training director of PASS, stresses it is not just a hit-and-run exercise.
‘We go back to the client after a few weeks and then after six months to pick up on any problems,’ he says. ‘Investing a day in training can repay massively in work time saved through using the software. A lot of people only use 10% of its functionality.’
But some accountancy firms are seizing the initiative when it comes to IT by producing their own software. Korman Paris, a three-partner North London firm of accountants, launched its own practice management software last year.
The Windows-based product, Genesis Practice Manager, was developed over four years. In 1994 Korman Paris bought the software and trading rights from another software company and formed Inspec Associates to develop and market the package. The product offers specialist features including work in progress, a sophisticated to-do list.
Worrying lack of skills
Lee Paris, a partner at Korman Paris and director of Genesis, says selling the software highlighted a worrying lack of IT skills in smaller practices. ‘In the firms we’ve seen, IT skills have ranged from zero to firms which have their own IT departments.’
At Korman Paris, partners take responsibility for different software applications such as Sage’s accounts production package, Audit 2000.
Paris argues that every firm needs to have a properly trained network in order to ensure smooth running of hardware and software applications pushing data, including upgrades, around the office.
‘Just putting the software on the machine is not adequate,’ he says.
‘Was the training from the supplier adequate or do you need a follow-up?’
Like many smaller practices Korman Paris is feeling the squeeze on traditional audit work. IT consultancy can provide a new, potentially life-saving form of revenue.
But for those who favour a more academic approach to IT learning there are a growing number of full and part-time MBAs in IT and computer systems.
Henley Management College, for example, offers MBAs with a strong grounding in IT for accountants keen to climb the general manager ladder.
From October it will become a distance-learning course using Lotus Notes, laptops and video conferencing to connect students and tutors.
David Birchall, director of development at Henley Management College, says the course includes a section on information management to ensure students know their IT jargon and the demands of software implementation.
‘If you want to become a managing director some people say an MBA is essential to getting you an interview,’ he says.
To sum up, IT training is finally being taken seriously. IT skills offer a revenue boost for practices and bargaining power for accountants at annual pay reviews.
Institutes are now doing more to help members develop their IT skills, but time and money constraints in smaller practices means it is harder to take time out of a busy schedule for training. The government’s IT accreditation scheme is also promising, but individuals need to choose which skills to specialise in and how much time to devote to it.
HOW TO MAKE TRAINING WORK TO YOUR BEST ADVANTAGE
Get to grips with IT basics before trying more complex topics like e-commerce and Java programming language, advises Tony Ryan, director of Deloitte & Touche Management Solutions.
‘Get an overview of the main areas,’ he says. ‘Know the difference between operating systems like NT and Unix and get a grounding in the networks and the applications themselves.’
Your own company is usually a good place to start. Talk to the IT department about the mechanics of your company’s software and hardware.
The next stage could be an IT course at night school, continuing professional development training, education from your institute or a full-time postgraduate course in IT.
But the cheaper option is going to free seminars held by software companies.
Apart form boosting your practice’s fee base, specialising in software can pave the way to lucrative consultancy work.
‘We have people who specialise in SAP controls,’ says Ryan. ‘They will do an audit of a SAP system to see any weaknesses.’
But if you opt for specialist training, be careful not to become blinkered.
It’s important to keep up with all developments in the software market.
Most companies will want IT advice on more than just bookkeeping and order-processing software.
IT magazines, newspapers and Internet news services are also a good way to keep abreast of new trends in the varying software markets.
‘I spend about 12 hours each week reading IT magazines and Internet news services I subscribe to,’ says Ryan.
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