Training and education special: career specialisation

accountant training

Today’s organisation seeks to achieve a balance between risk and opportunity.
This, in turn, influences decisions about the type of accountants it recruits
and develops. Having accountants with a deep specialism is one way that a
company can differentiate itself from others and develop business opportunities
that come with having high-calibre intellectual capability. Likewise,
specialising is a means of managing complexity and the accompanying risk that
comes with it.

But organisations need more than technical specialists; they also need good
people managers with business development skills. It was ever thus, and there is
a place for the specialist just as there is for the non-specialist manager.

Organisational drivers greatly influence the career opportunities available
in a business. These opportunities may also be cyclical. For instance, the value
placed on a specialist role is only as high as the availability of those skills
and knowledge and the demand for them at any particular time – for example, the
demand for IT professionals leading up to the millennium or Sarbanes-Oxley
specialists up to the end of last year.

Specialisation can be a highly valuable asset, but, as with many assets, a
particular specialisation can depreciate in value. The key to career success is
an individual’s ability to ‘reinvent’ their specialism or find a niche within
their existing specialism.

Accountants need to make fine judgments early on in their careers about
whether and when they wish to specialise. The pull to specialise early on can
often be considerable, but giving in to it could limit future opportunities for
career development.

Through our own extensive consultation with employers, we know that some
encourage their staff to specialise from day one. While there are undoubtedly
sound business reasons for doing so, it is a risky strategy as it limits an
individual’s abilities and knowledge.

Although certain areas of the accountancy profession will always demand a
specialist – a forensic accountant, a tax expert or a corporate governance guru
– recent research points to the rise of the finance generalist in the profession
as the century advances. Employers will need to future-proof their recruitment
and human capital management strategies to cope with significant global

This was the central premise of a recent study. In 2020, businesses will be
faced with more complexity, compliance and risks. As a result, their accountants
will need to be less specialists, and more decisive and focused on steering a
company through its challenges. The study described the ideal type of accountant
as a ‘company navigator’.

A balance needs to be struck by structuring education to give trainees the
option to decide the areas they want to specialise in only when they reach the
final stages of their course. When they qualify it is not the end but the start
of a promising and fulfilling career.

It used to be the case that an accountant’s career route started within a
practice, typically in audit. The three-year grounding was felt to offer an
excellent breadth of experience, giving the trainee an insight into and
understanding of how businesses work.

But recent developments have seen the proliferation of career development
routes, with trainee accountants working in financial services and public sector
organisations, gaining sound management and technical experience. Likewise,
accountancy practices provide the option of starting out in tax, corporate
finance, corporate recovery and forensic accounting – each quite significant but
specialist fields.


This trend towards early specialisation has two drivers: the need to attract
high-calibre recruits seeking an exciting challenge, and the need to maximise
the value that each individual contributes to a business’s goals. Given talent
shortages and the pressure to improve business performance, this trend should
continue, at least for the short term.

On-the-job training and more study is essential in the finance profession –
regardless of whether an individual intends to specialise or not. Continuous
professional development (CPD) should aim to ensure that learning and
development are relevant to accountants at all stages of their career.

For those who would like to specialise after qualification, there is the
decision about how to develop relevant knowledge and skills. We find that the
ethos of continuing professional development, together with an awareness of the
need to develop and a wider range of learning opportunities, has been of great
benefit. Combined with good performance management, CPD provides a framework
within which people can set their career development goals and construct the
best-fit development activities to meet those goals.

Accountants should be encouraged to seek out opportunities to develop through
experience – for example, by working on new projects. We also provide access to
specialist qualifications and career development routes such as e-learning
modules, MBAs and post-qualification awards with leading universities. The idea
is to give individuals the tools to build the best package for their goals and

Research into the CPD needs of our membership provides a useful insight into
the direction accountants are taking their careers. For instance, 95% of
accountants in west Africa, 87% in the Caribbean and 83% in eastern Europe say
they need more CPD in the field of corporate finance. Global scores are also
high for financial reporting, especially in east Africa (97%) and western Europe
(83%), while more training and development in taxation is seen as a need by 88%
of members in Asia and 79% in Australasia.

Important skills in which accountants say they require professional
development include business writing, effective communication, meeting
management, presentations, relationship building and influencing. This suggests
that there is an appreciation of the need to improve the effective delivery of
technical knowledge through management skills.

The rise of the career generalist – the company navigator – is already under

Clare Minchington is managing director of education,
learning and development at ACCA

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