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Enhancing the Effectiveness of Professional Accountants in Business: An International Perspective

Ian Ball | IFAC Chief Executive
May 8, 2006 | Institute of Management Accountants International Conference | Dubai, United Arab Emirates | English

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak to you today. It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to be back here in Dubai for this conference. A significant proportion – well over 50 percent – of the members of IFAC’s 160 member organizations is employed in business. The more I meet with groups like this one, the more aware I am of the fundamental, but diverse, support our profession provides to thousands, actually millions, of businesses of every size, in every country around the world.

The Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) has long been a leader of and champion for professional accountants in business and industry. The IMA also has a long history of support of and participation in the international profession. It has been an active member of IFAC since 1980, and its representatives have served on the IFAC Professional Accountants in Business (PAIB) Committee, which is dedicated to supporting and raising awareness of the vital role that you play. Specifically, I would like to recognize Bradley Kaplan, who joined the IFAC PAIB Committee in January 2006, and William Brower, who served on the committee from 2001 to 2005. The service of these and of other volunteer members of IFAC boards and committees is vital to achieving our objectives and to supporting professional accountants in all sectors of the economy worldwide.

The diversity of our profession is, I believe, one of our unrecognized strengths. Because professional accountants in business work in a wide variety of roles, at every level of organizations across all industry sectors, we collectively have a perspective that extends well beyond “the numbers.” Professional accountants in business – or PAIBs as we call them at IFAC – understand the drivers behind a business, and therefore play a fundamental role in contributing to the creation of shareholder value. Few other professionals have such a diverse and significant role in the day-to-day operations of businesses and other organizations.

So what then are the challenges that PAIBs face and how can we best meet them to enhance our effectiveness?

The first is mastering change.

Whether we are management accountants or accountants in public practice or any other field, our value to society and our effectiveness is determined in great part by our ability to address the changing environment in which we operate. The last twenty years have witnessed a massive transformation in business organizations, driven by intense competition, the globalization of markets, and the continual need to redefine strategies, structures and processes. Changes in political regimes, new conceptions of management controls, the impact of globalizing forces on commercial affairs, shifts in notions of effective knowledge management, of governance and of ethics, and technological advances have affected all areas of the profession and, notably, management accounting.

Let’s consider for a moment the changing nature of the finance function and the impact on professional accountants in business. In efficiently providing the goods and services that society wants, high performing organizations competing globally demand a unified service delivery model based on achieving a common technology platform, common business processes and common data. To deliver this, finance function initiatives include global strategies for centralizing process-based activities under the shared services and/or outsourcing umbrellas. This involves dealing with challenges such as process improvement and possible relocation to lower cost regions.

The trend calls for smaller finance functions, but more effective PAIBs. “World-class” organizations have a finance cost well below one percent of revenue. On the supply-side, firms such as IBM and Accenture have expanded their business process outsourcing up the value chain to include more strategic activities, and there is ongoing high demand from companies for outsourcing their routine accounting services to external, and often overseas, service providers. As well as achieving greater process quality and efficiency, and cost reduction, reorientation of the finance organization has the potential also to support value creation in organizations. A key objective is to deliver enhanced analysis, insight, and involvement in decision making. To be successful, to remain relevant and to be considered vital in the value creation of organizations, PAIBs need to challenge their roles and participation in organizations and be prepared to review and change structures, accountabilities and incentives. Above all, we may need to dig deeper to understand what customers of finance require from the finance organization and how business partnering can be most effective in a variety of contexts. This is true whether we work in a large corporation or a small or medium enterprise. 

Another major challenge that PAIBs must address is globalization and its impact on organizations.

A number of well-documented and profound shifts affect organizations and the accountants they employ – from economic liberalization, relocating of economic activity to other geographies such as China and India, and within geographies, to technological advances and significant demographic changes. To make any business a global business means more than finding new customers or suppliers in other countries. It requires an openness to change among the owners and the management team. This change requires taking well-informed risks, opening up the firm or company’s culture and making a serious commitment to ongoing learning. It is for this latter reason that IFAC’s International Accounting Education Standards Board has mandated a requirement for all professional accountants, including obviously those in business, to undertake continuing professional development. None of this change happens spontaneously, but requires planning and clear leadership. Hence, the planning of these internal changes should be part of the planning for international activities.

This is especially true for small and medium enterprises. Compared to larger firms, small and medium enterprises are generally less well-equipped to face increases in international trade. As a result of their lower average productivity, many SMEs have found it difficult to compete. Also, given their limited resources, they have found it more difficult to take advantage of the removal of tariff barriers. This does not mean, however, that it is impossible for SMEs to enter the international market place and to do so effectively. They must be prepared to look for new partners, to identify and focus on their market strengths, and to acquire information and expertise about overseas’ markets and cultures.

Recognizing the extent to which SMEs contribute to economic growth and stability around the world, IFAC has focused particular attention on this area. Through the establishments of a Small and Medium Practices Committee last year, we are considering how our organization can best meet the needs of SMPs and SMEs. One of the primary areas we are addressing is international standards and their impact on SMEs. The SMP Committee has provided input to the International Accounting Standards Board SME project, expressing our support for standards that are relevant, simple, and appropriate to the work of SMPs and SMEs. We have also been on the public record recently emphasizing the urgency and importance of financial reporting standards that fit this description. The SMP Committee also works closely with the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board to ensure that the views of SMPs and SMEs are considered as auditing standards are developed, to ensure that auditing standards too avoid the imposition of requirements that have unwarranted compliance costs. At our upcoming IFAC Board meeting on June 1-2, we will be asking the Board to give the “go-ahead” for a new SME implementation guide to International Standards on Auditing. We view this as a significant project designed to help SMPs and SMEs address the growing challenges of globalization.

In addition, this month the IFAC PAIB Committee will issue an information paper on business planning for SMEs. Many business failures can be attributed to the lack of a sound business plan. The publication is designed to assist SMEs and their SMP advisors in understanding their own businesses, enabling them to evaluate both the potential of the business and the associated risks. The document will include the principles of business planning, a checklist and a sample business plan. It will be available for download free-of-charge from the IFAC website:

A third major challenge for professional accountants in business is building trust.

As organizations expand their global activities to exploit competitive opportunities, businesses large and small are coming under increasing scrutiny. Organizations will only be able to build the trust of a range of stakeholders through greater openness, transparency and accountability. The challenge then for professional accountants in business is to serve as an ethical gatekeeper – to be a champion of integrity, transparency, and objectivity – the three core values of IFAC. IFAC’s Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, which is applicable to all accountants, including those in business, industry, government, academia, and public practice, embraces these core values.

The IFAC Board has recognized that PAIBs are the front-line professionals who could and should be a brake on inappropriate actions taken by their organizations, with that break extending, in some situations, to whistleblowing. Acknowledging that is it often extremely difficult for a PAIB, in isolation, to know what is the appropriate action in a particular situation, the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants has begun a project to provide greater guidance for accountants in business and in practice with respect to whistleblowing. You can expect to see more guidance in this general area in 2007.

This new guidance will also help professional accountants in business carry out one of your most important responsibilities: setting the tone at the top in your organization. Earlier this year the PAIB Committee issued an exposure draft, Guidance for the Development of a Code of Corporate Conduct, proposing guidance to assist professional accountants and others in establishing and implementing codes of conduct in their organizations. The publication draws greater attention to the need for corporate codes of conduct and provides practical guidance on the scope and implementation of such codes. The goal of the proposed new guidance is to support sound corporate governance policies worldwide. The proposed guidance highlights the benefits of an effective code of conduct and identifies the professional accountant’s role in the development, monitoring, reinforcement, and reporting of such codes in their organizations. To assist in the creation of codes of conduct, the guidance includes information on presentation and content, on organizational and management challenges, and on implementing a code of conduct in a global organization.

Effective codes of conduct are a vital component of an organization’s control system. This new publication will enable professional accountants, who are largely responsible for internal control and risk management, to work with senior management to develop such codes, which, in turn, will support the control, direction and evaluation of their organizations’ performance. 

This leads me to a fourth area of challenge for PAIBs: decision making in their organizations.

The scope of the role of PAIBs in supporting and enabling better decision making is driven by a recurring issue in all organizations: that of ensuring decision making is not too heavily based on heuristics – “instinct,” “common sense,” “rules of thumb” and “gut feeling.”

Bad decisions are usually traceable to the way the decisions were made. Management accounting may be seen as a counter to what has been described as “bounded management rationality,” as an antidote to excessive confidence, as it enables decisions to be based on more than instinct. Research over the past few decades has helped us to understand better the manner in which humans make decisions. This can assist in determining how to present information in a manner that is easier to process and understand – for example, it is clear that size ordering, as opposed, say, to alphabetic ordering, of a set of numbers enables the reader to see and recall patterns very much more readily. Similarly, this research also helps us to understand the systematic ways in which we make inappropriate decisions, though mis-weighting recent events or low frequency, high impact events, or through myopia, to give some examples.

PAIBs can support managers in achieving better outcomes in relation to organization objectives. They assist to define alternatives, collect appropriate information and evaluate cost versus benefit. Numerous tools and techniques are at the PAIB’s disposal to support decisions – such as a range of investment appraisal techniques, net present value, business forecasting, performance management, competitive analysis and performance information. A number of mistakes are made time and time again in organizations, such as the sunk cost trap where sunk costs, although irrelevant to a present decision, have nonetheless been shown in research to be given undue weight in decision making. Another is the oversight of opportunity cost – the next best alternative that is forgone when a decision is made.

In order to make the right decisions, management needs to treat decision making as a distinguishing competence, which is supported by high quality, timely and multi-dimensional information about a company’s business model and performance drivers, and which focuses on the big issues and opportunities, as well as an awareness, not yet adequately accommodated within management accounting, of the realities of human decision-making processes.

Frequent roadblocks to robust strategic decision making include:

  • Boards lacking a clear grasp of their organizations’ business model and key performance drivers, or pursuing an inherently flawed business model. People might see accounting profits in the short-term, but nevertheless be destroying value in everyday decision making.
  • Decision making not being underpinned by rigorous value and risk analysis. Finance staff and others within management too often get distracted by the natural bias towards the financial reporting cycle and external compliance requirements and expectations, a factor that has become a greater concern as regulatory regimes demand increasing compliance activity.
  • For all the talk of strategic management accounting, many accountants in industry have not been able to give sufficient attention to value precursors, the prerequisites for value creation, which are mainly non-financial, such as market sector dynamics and brand health indicators.
  • Culture and communication: Let’s not forget that employees play the biggest part in generating shareholder value but, so often, the focus on adding value is blurred and diluted when you get a few levels down in the organizational hierarchy.

To provide guidance on governance issues from both a conformance and performance perspective, the PAIB Committee, in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in the United Kingdom, published a report, Enterprise Governance – Getting the Balance Right. It explores the emerging concept of enterprise governance, which incorporates organizational performance into a business governance framework, especially in terms of decision making, strategy formulation and execution. The report, which is available on the IFAC website, argues how both perspectives must be in place in order to support high performance in organizations. This publication highlights the role of PAIBs in these processes.

To help professional accountants worldwide meet these and other challenges, IFAC’s PAIB Committee has this year begun developing a series of principles-based good practice guidance statements. This development is one that is happening through the leadership and support of the IMA. The guidance will promote and support consistent and high quality practice across the global community of PAIBs. Covering topics in the areas of management control, costing and corporate finance and financial management, this IFAC guidance will raise understanding of the role of the PAIB. It will recommend objectives in relation to the role of the PAIB, and define key principles, which are widely accepted features of good practice and which support the achievement of the objectives of the PAIB, and will provide practical guidance to support application of the principles.

This leads me to the fifth and final challenge that I will comment on today with respect to professional accountants in business – that is, learning how to manage knowledge.

Managing change means managing knowledge. For professional accountants in business, this may require a fundamental change in how we process and convey information. For example, we must develop a mindset that is open to new ideas, receptive to challenges, and capable of insightful analysis. We should and can, I believe, apply the principles of human information processing to our management and recruitment techniques to strengthen our organizations. This means enabling professional accountants to process information differently and more independently, and to help remove organizational bottlenecks that prevent them from making the types of contributions that can best add value to an organization.

Ours is a profession that is responsible for far more than historical compliance related activities. We cannot forget this. We must focus on building organizational capacity and performance, and on developing a new generation of PAIBs who can not only embrace change but thrive in a world in which it is inevitable.

In conclusion, it is important to recognize that business has a central role in driving economic and social welfare but that it requires high quality information for the effective management of resources and sound corporate governance to achieve these objectives. PAIBs, as the primary providers of business information and reporting, play a crucial role in contributing to the growth and development of business.

Our recent publication, The Roles and Domain of the Professional Accountant in Business, was developed to build understanding of the diverse roles, competencies and value PAIBs contribute to organizations. Pointers from this document include:

  • As managers of value, PAIBs should understand that delivering sustained shareholder and stakeholder value (or “best value” as it has sometimes been described in the public sector) is the main goal when assessing alternative options. PAIBs have a key role in developing strategies for managing value and growth, and in moving other functions towards these goals;
  • PAIBs have a responsibility to ensure that the organization understands fully its key performance drivers and that these are communicated in internal and external reporting; and
  • PAIBs should ensure there is a relentless pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness from the investment base, particularly in areas such as capital expenditure, working capital management, brand management and R&D.

Specifically, the IFAC PAIB Committee’s role is to enhance the role of PAIBs by helping them to think and to act strategically and globally, and to develop the necessary knowledge and competencies to deliver sound decision making in organizations. PAIBs need to be in a position to deal with the increasing complexity of managing business. For example, the move to modular design and platform development to enable organizations to deal with considerably shorter product and service life cycles requires a more sophisticated approach to planning, costing, risk and control.

To help PAIBs obtain access to information that can help them meet these challenges, the PAIB Committee has spearheaded the development of an electronic knowledge resource center. It is a unique web project that aims to publicize and consolidate the valuable information produced by IFAC member bodies for the benefits of professional accountants worldwide. It will enable member bodies to offer their professional accountants access to increased, relevant and high quality information resources, including helping them to deal with ethical leadership and public interest challenges such as corporate responsibility.

The challenges for both IFAC and its member bodies, such as the IMA, are to sustain the relevance of professional accountants in business, to continually investigate and adopt new concepts and new learning models, and to increase awareness of the PAIB’s capabilities. There are awareness gaps in which IFAC is making a significant impact, for example, in improving accounting information in the public sector, and highlighting the role of PAIBs in driving economic activity and their contribution to the governance agenda. This is coupled with IFAC’s role in supporting trust and credibility in both the wider accounting profession and in capital markets, which is central to its mission of protecting the public interest.

Over the past few years, IFAC has stressed its public interest objective. While some might think that objective is confined to public practice and auditing, that is a very narrow conception of what is in the public interest. The public interest is served when organizations produce products and services that have a value greater than the resources consumed in production. Economic growth and development is in the public interest. So when we talk about the public interest, PAIBs are included in that. 

IFAC’s leadership, its Board and the members of the IFAC PAIB Committee all recognize the role of PAIBs in protecting the public interest and in contributing to economic growth and stability. Through their daily work in organizations around the world, PAIBs contribute to the growth of their businesses and organizations and to greater economic prosperity for all. This must be why the late management guru, Peter Drucker, declared in the Harvard Business Review, that “The most exciting and innovative work in management today is found in accounting.” I believe that assertion still holds true, as I am sure do all of you.

Thank you for your attention. This speech will be posted on your website and on IFAC’s within 24 hours if you would like to read it, and I would welcome any comments you may have.