In-House Accountants' Roles Widen

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Chief financial officers think their accounting staffers will be spending more time than ever on strategy and IT projects five years from now, according to a survey from Robert Half Management Resources.

On average, the CFOs expect accountants will spend 40 percent of their time working on issues beyond the traditional accounting functions five years from now. The average time spent on those tasks now? An estimated 36 percent.

The survey of 1,400 CFOs working for firms with 20 or more employees also revealed that 20 percent of the CFOs expect accountants to spend more than half their time on strategy and IT in the future.

Robert Half Executive Director Paul McDonald suspects the current economy plays a role. "There are less people being required to do more tasks," he says. "That compresses decision-making and strategic thinking down the organizational chart. Information is flowing so quickly that there's not enough time in the day for (those at])the top of the organizational chart to do everything."

Cross-functional teams are more prevalent, too, especially among IT, finance and accounting, McDonald says. "So much so that the educational authorities are offering more and more degrees that combine finance, accounting and IT," he adds.

Nothing New

CFOs' desire to move from bean counting to bean sprouting is nothing new, says Jeffrey Thomson, president and chief executive of the Institute of Management Accountants. "If you asked this question 15 years ago, the answers wouldn't be any different in a material way," he says. "And if you ask this question in the year 2015, the answer might not be a whole lot different."

CFOs and finance teams always want to be strategic advisors, but sometimes lack the right education. "We're not doing a good job at preparing accounting students for these more strategic forward-looking activities that CFOs around the world say they desperately need," Thomson remarks. "Students and young professionals tend to be well versed in audit, tax and compliance, but not in risk management, strategic budgeting, planning and IT."

In addition, CFOs have been busy coping with shocks to the system, including Sarbanes-Oxley and then the recession. "If you don't fill your talent pool with those skilled in this broader set of value-added activities, you're always going to be treading water," Thomson says. "Next, it's going to be IFRS or XBRL."

Large firms aren't the only ones looking for strategy help from the accounting department. Small companies, especially those lacking a CFO or controller in house, look to their accounting firm to supply strategic advice in addition to financial statements, points out Mark Koziel, a senior technical manager at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants.

Get Strategic Skills

Whenever the trend toward strategic skills in accounting started, it pays to think strategically about your strategic thinking skills. The AICPA provides an online self-assessment tool as well as "Emerging Partner" training. And state CPA societies run a "Trusted Business Advisor" program.

IMA, for its part, offers a Webinar program on risk management and internal controls.

If you lack skills in strategy and IT, come up with a learning plan to get them, suggests Kayla Briggs, another of AICPA's senior technical managers. "Get a mentor, get special assignments or go to school and take a Master's program or special programs in strategic thinking," she says.

Strategic Job Hunting

If you're seeking a new position, consider the type of assignments you'll be offered and ask potential employers how they encourage business and leadership development. "Get into finance jobs that don't lock you into a particular assignment," Thomson says. "Seek out companies and opportunities that encourage cross-functional rotations."

If you're not offered jobs that use strategic or IT skills, take the job that's given and seek out projects that hone those skills, McDonald says. "Step out of your comfort zone and go for projects and special assignments where you'll have to speak up because you're part of a team and not just a doer."

If there's no way to get into a strategic planning role at work, get into one after hours by joining a professional association or a local non-profit board and working on committees that develop strategy or make IT decisions.

In the end, what really matters is that you pick up strategic thinking and IT skills, regardless of whether they're acquired on the job, after hours, or through additional education. If demand for those skills increases, you'll be more valuable to employers. And even if it doesn't, you'll still be a more well-rounded accounting professional, making you more valuable wherever you work.

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