IMA’s updated Competency Framework broadens range of accounting skills

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The Institute of Management Accountants recently updated its Management Accounting Competency Framework, adding some new capabilities to help accountants stay relevant in a rapidly changing field that’s being disrupted by the latest technology advances.

The IMA is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this year and is preparing to host its annual conference next month in San Diego where it will mark its centennial. The organization currently represents more than 120,000 professional members around the world and is planning to discuss the new framework along with the latest trends in the accounting profession.

“This whole topic will be very much infused into the conference,” IMA President and CEO Jeff Thomson told Accounting Today. “We’re very excited about the leading-edge work we’re doing.”

Research from the IMA and other sources indicates that most businesses are looking for ways to implement technologies such as data analytics and robotic process automation, or RPA, while evaluating newer technologies such as blockchain. “Everybody generally agrees that these digital technologies could be good for business, with more efficient seamless supply chains freeing up resources to do more value-added activity,” said Thomson. “That’s the opportunity. The challenge is that CEOs and CFOs almost universally say that a lack of talent and workforce capability is the biggest inhibitor. Whether it’s Gartner, McKinsey or PwC or others, when you look at the secondary research in addition to our own, it says that competence and talent are the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. When we think about our Competency Framework, training and tools, we are squarely focused on competency building and data science, advanced data analytics, storytelling and also strategy management.”

It’s becoming more important for accountants to have some familiarity with these technologies, especially if they aspire to one day become CFOs.

“The market basically says if you want to become a CFO in this day and age, in a digital environment especially, you need to have a broader strategy mindset,” said Thomson.

He recently visited China and saw similar demands there for technology skills in the accounting profession. “We have done a major study with a partner in China, and I think the results are very telling and also fairly consistent with the rest of the world, at least in terms of maturity and adoption of new technologies,” said Thomson.

Some advanced technologies are making rapid progress in the accounting profession, but others are more likely to be used in the future. “We’re seeing a lot of applications and use cases in big data analytics, data mining and robotics process automation,” said Thomson. “Blockchain is going to take a little more time to develop. We’re seeing more and more programs being developed in undergraduate universities in data science.”

Universities are trying to meet the challenge of training students in these technologies. “They’re not necessarily integrated with the accounting curriculum, but at least they’re there,” said Thomson. “When we talk to corporations around the world, we see more training programs in analytics, visualization, storytelling, various technologies. We’ve seen adoption of our globally recognized competency framework and CMA program. That’s good and we’re excited, but the question is whether the rate of change in competency building is keeping up with the rate of change in technological development. Those who can figure out which technologies have the highest return will probably win in a very competitive marketplace. Those that don’t may be left behind or won’t be as competitive.”

He pointed to an annual survey by the employer review website Glassdoor ranking the best-paying entry-level jobs, and data scientist ranks in first place. It also scores high in overall job satisfaction and the number of available positions.

“The question is, in this race for talent are we hiring statisticians or are we hiring econometricians or are we hiring accountants?” said Thomson. “And the answer is yes. Today's accountant in business is not yesterday's and won't be tomorrow's. So we need to upskill, upskill, upskill. That really is the message.”

Accountants need skills to assess the reliability of the data they are seeing from the technology their organizations are using. A recent survey by BlackLine found finance teams don’t trust their own data half as much as the C-suite does. Nearly seven in 10 respondents believe their organization has made significant business decisions based on inaccurate data.

“There are always going to be challenges with data integrity and data quality,” said Thomson. “That will always be an issue, especially as you get into the world of non-financial reporting, with sustainability and integrated reporting, where the data could be more qualitative and not as driven by the ledger. Blockchain, which I've often heard referred to in some of the hype as the truth serum for distributed ledgers, could be very helpful in terms of data quality across various intermediaries. But for sure, the data and the analysis of the data and making insightful conclusions that also have foresight and tell the organization something different than the data at first glance would tell you, is absolutely a needed expectation. There are different levels of data analytics. I'm actually a mathematician and statistician who became an accountant finance person, and I think the analytics we do today is possibly adequate for today, but definitely not adequate for what we're facing in the future, where there will be some replacement of jobs and tasks in our profession. And if we don't upscale to more advanced data science and data analytics using visualization techniques and data mining, then we're going to lose relevance and influence.”

Technology know-how has become a pressing need in the accounting profession. “We view this as a call to action with a sense of urgency,” said Thomson. “Everybody is talking about the new technologies and upskilling and analytics. But when you take a bigger look at the profession and the longevity and sustainability of the profession, its relevance and influence, it’s a call to action. If you look at our profession today, we are absolutely adding value, relevance and influence. It is a moderately attractive profession for millennials. STEM programs are the more sexy and attractive ones in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so we've got work to do both on the inflow of millennials into our great profession, but also the future relevance. Every expert in the world is saying over the next 10 years, including now, jobs’ past activities will go away due to RPA, etc. Do we want to be a profession that shrinks and contracts? Or do we want to be a profession that embraces technology at all levels of the organization, at all age groups, and uses technology to create an even more relevant and influential profession? And that comes down to change, perhaps in areas that we're not as comfortable with learning about, whether it's statistics or modeling or advanced predictive technologies. Those are things that we must embrace if we're to increase relevance and influence in a digital age.”

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Accounting education Certified Management Accountants RPA Jeff Thomson IMA