Doctors have ER. Solicitors have This Life. But so far accountants have not had the privilege of having their working lives laid bare by television drama. Perhaps it’s not surprising. The script reads like the worst excesses of a daytime soap opera.
Imagine a plot that takes in marriages (among mid-tier firms we have seen a variety: some born of mutual respect, some arranged and some apparently shotgun); divorces (mostly bitter – just ask Andersens); births (invariably, in the case of the dot.coms at least, painful) and more than a few untimely deaths (usually early and always, as the e-revolution has shown, with dramatic consequences).
And that would just be this summer’s episodes. You can see why this drama has never got off the ground.
No self-respecting TV executive would commission it – it’s just too far fetched.
Given this background any accountant working today could be forgiven for experiencing something of a crisis of confidence. Are you questioning your job, your qualification – even your profession? You probably needn’t, but then again you are far from alone.
As a group accountants are more successful than they have ever been – and probably the most successful of all financial professionals.
Accountants are key players in the growth of UK plc – from the boardroom to the back room. They are not the beancounters that outdated stereotype would have us believe but key financial decision-makers.
In practice they – you – have successfully moved away from over-reliance on the old economy services of tax, insolvency and audit to embrace the brave new world of consultancy, corporate finance and business recovery.
In business you are – or soon will be – chief executives, finance directors and financial controllers. The men and women who make the decisions that matter.
But change breeds uncertainty and self-doubt. And with globalisation, the e-business revolution and a relentless regulatory and media spotlight, never has change been swifter or more profound.
Sensing that this marks a pivotal moment for the UK accounting world, Accountancy Age commissioned a major piece of research earlier this year from leading market research agency NOP Business.
We questioned what drives accountants today and whether loyalty to the profession still exists. We also wanted to gauge the business issues affecting both the accountant as an individual and their organisation as well as skills and training issues. Crucially we also wanted to find out whether the professional institutes are now key players or largely redundant bystanders.
The research shows us that despite the uncertainty, most of you are happy most of the time.
The research highlights four distinct types of accountant.
Half of you are what we defined as dedicated accountants, happy in your jobs and playing a pivotal role in your organisations.
Found in all sectors, you are proud of your qualification, you feel appreciated at work job and are looked to for advice on products and services. You see your qualification as core to what you do today and what you will do in the future.
The Dedicated Accountant is more likely than average to be single, under 35, female and working in practice.
Some 33% of you are business activists. You have used your qualification very much as a means to an end – or at least as a key way of attaining your main career objective – but again are broadly satisfied with your lot.
Your qualification has some relevance, but the role of your professional institute today is minimal. You are likely to work in the business sector and you probably see yourself as either an entrepreneur or business leader.
You are probably already an FD and may well have aspirations to set up your own company or move elsewhere.
The Business Activist is least likely to be single, and more likely to be under 35, male, and working in business.
So far so positive. Worryingly, however, a sizeable pocket of you is not happy.
Some 11% of you are frustrated. You are proud of your qualifications but feel unappreciated and unrewarded at work. In your eyes, your employer does not appreciate the role of the qualified accountant. Your present career path is probably blocked but you don’t seem to have sufficient energy to go and do something different. That said you are entrepreneurial and probably hope to set up your own businesses or move to another organisation.
The Frustrated Accountant is least likely to be married (often divorced), and more likely than average to be 35-45, male, and working in the public sector with a CIMA qualification under your belt.
Worse still, there are the six per cent of you who we have identified as disempowered. You are uncertain about your professional future and outside the loop when it comes to crucial decisions taken by your current employer.
You think of yourself as having a business management rather than purely accountancy role. You are not engaged in the project process in your organisation and are far less likely than others to be consulted on decisions.
The Disempowered are most likely to be married and have children, and more likely than average to be 35-45, male, owning and living in their own home and working in the public sector. You are the most likely to move to another organisation. At the same time, while you are least sure about what the future holds for you, you are the most likely to soldier on.
Fortunately the disempowered are by far the smallest group. Unfortunately it seems to be the most embittered.
But before despondency sets in, there is hope. And much of it lies in the rejuvenation of the image of the profession.
High-profile corporate financiers like Alchemy’s Jon Moulton, the man who nearly won Rover, have show what a hard business nose accountancy training can provide. And with women like KPMG board member Ruth Anderson smashing through the old glass ceiling, accountancy’s reputation as the last bastion of all that is grey-suited, white, middle-aged, middle-class and above all male is changing. Yes, not as quickly as most of us would like, but changing nevertheless.
That’s why a solid majority (65%) of you continues to call yourselves accountants. Previous surveys we have run in this area have suggested a certain reluctance on the part of accountants to acknowledge their professional roots. However the tide would appear to be turning.
Loyalty to the profession is highest in practice where almost two thirds of you are likely to remain in the profession into the foreseeable future.
Not surprisingly there is more transience in business. Nevertheless more than a third of you now working in business, see yourselves as accountants and are likely to continue to think of themselves as accountants in future.
Public sector respondents lie in between these two extremes – just under half think you will continue to think of themselves as working accountants for the rest of your working life.
But it’s those of you that said no to this question that provided the most telling insight. And perhaps suggested where accountancy is heading in the 21st century.
You see yourselves as business managers, business advisors, consultants, financial decision-makers and business leaders.
Some things still appear sacred, however. Just one per cent of you sees yourselves as entrepreneurs. The leap forward from beancounter to wheeler dealer will obviously take more than a generation.
Now that’s an idea that would make great TV.
Only three issues matter to today’s accountants whatever field they work in – technology, technology and technology.
IT is transforming client bases, globalising the economy and raising the greatest personal challenges for finance professionals.
So it’s no surprise three quarters of you believe the net is central to the successful development of your company. Worryingly, some of you don’t have desktop access to the web. As corporate policy this is shortsighted even suicidal.
Those of you working in business are more bullish about the potential of the net to improve procurement and reduce costs.
But almost all of you believe the internet will help expand your business and increase communications. In the public sector, 78% believe the internet will help increase uptake of their services.
However, access to technology comes at a price. Accountants in business and practice face information overload.
But the growth of IT and the internet bring with it the need for more training and most of you are crying out for guidance. IT skills are particularly sought by those in the smallest businesses and sole practitioners.
But traditional sources of training are changing. We asked those accountants who felt they had skills gaps where they would go for training.
Only just over half would look to their professional institute to address skills gaps. CIMA members are most likely to look to their institutes where they feel they need additional training, although they are more comfortable than the rest of you with their IT skills.
Not surprisingly those of you working in smaller businesses are more likely to look to your professional institute for training advice (55% of those in organisations with 2-249 employees), although sole practitioners are less likely to do so than the norm (41%).
Some 76% of those who would not look to their professional institute and who are in organisations with less than 250 employees would look to a specialist training organisation. Directors, partners and interim managers are likely to consider business schools.
Those of you who would look to inhouse training are more likely to be employees of larger organisations who are able to support such operations (71% of those in organisations with more than 250 employees).
But of those that do not look to their professional institutes, over half think the professional institutes should be doing something about offering skills training in these areas for them.
So where does that leave the institutes? Their problems are compounded by the fact that in the face of the technological revolution the significance of regulatory issues is declining.
Despite this around 60% of you feel the role of your institute is relevant, but this is much less the case among those of you working in business.
One in four said you made no use of any services the institute provided.
You weren’t short of suggestions on how the institutes can arrest their decline. More help for and attention to smaller businesses, more relevant training, more practical help, support and guidance and more focused information figured prominently. You also urged them to be more management and business focused.
Like you they will need to respond if they are to prosper in the new business climate.
– Look out for a special series of e-business supplements from Accountancy Age later this month.
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