CIMA MD gives thumbs up but stresses SL can achieve more

Thursday, 29 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

A frequent traveller to the country, CIMA Managing Director Andrew Harding on Tuesday declared that Sri Lanka has established a name for itself in the world for producing “great” Management Accountants (MAs). Emphasising that the country will gain long-term competitive advantage only through skills, Harding pointed out Sri Lanka has bright and ambitious people who are determined to work hard and excel. Speaking to the Daily FT despite a tight schedule during his three-day visit, Harding shared his views about the country, the progress of CIMA in Sri Lanka, the role of MAs and best practices that should be brought in to uplift the profession. Following are excerpts:     By Shabiya Ali Ahlam Q: Having visited Sri Lanka several times before, what is your opinion of the country? A: I have been visiting the country every year for the past 10 years. From my experience I can say that Sri Lanka has established itself well for producing great MAs and the world knows that. It is something which gives the country competitive advantage in the world market. Economic growth here is now 6% which is much higher than anywhere in the West and probably much higher than countries where FDI comes from. What this means is that every year, services from Sri Lanka will become more and more expensive. The real thing is that Sri Lanka is competitive and one of the reasons for this is the relative wage cost. However, this can go away very quickly. The long-term competitive advantage for the country is through skills. This is one of the elements that could increase the potential of the national economy.   Q: What is the purpose of your visit to the country this time? A: This time it is all about the learning and the teaching. I will be meeting up with the CIMA teachers. There is the opening of the CIMA PLUS College in partnership with the Mercury Institute. A signing of MoU is also scheduled to take place with the Sri Lankan Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). So that is why am here for this time.   Q: Focusing on CIMA in Sri Lanka, how has the performance been so far? A: The performance in Sri Lanka has been fantastic. Year on year it just keeps getting better. CIMA has a great reputation in this country, and as a result of that it means that Sri Lanka has a great reputation in the world. It is becoming to be known as a centre for financial shared services. If you want it done well then Sri Lanka is a great place to come. Particularly with the end of the war, the opportunity to attract that Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) only increases. I think it is a great partnership. CIMA gives the opportunity for so many Sri Lankans to have an international qualification, and it is what global businesses want to see when they are setting up operations here. It gives them confidence in that standard. The most recent exciting thing is the partnership with the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). This means that our members would also be Chartered Global Management Accountants, which is a qualification that is also available to the American CPA. So for the first time there is an accounting qualification that is genuinely recognised across the whole world. American corporations demand it as much as corporation from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Again that is adding value for those in Sri Lanka who already have the CIMA qualification or for those who are studying for it. This provides more opportunities either because it is attracting more investment here and giving companies more confidence or because there are great opportunities for people to work in other countries and have that international transportability of skills.   Q: If you were to compare Sri Lanka with the other countries in the Asian region, where do you think we stand? A: As far as CIMA is concerned, Sri Lanka is our largest market in this part of the world. A lot of that is driven by the particular circumstances of the country and because CIMA has been operating here for a very long time. After the corporate central office in London, UK, the CIMA office in Sri Lanka is the largest centre. With our Regional Director based here, we use resources from Sri Lanka to develop other markets in the region and push our development in countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, and UAE. We are going across the whole region, but Sri Lanka remains our strongest market. Whether that will be the case forever, I don’t know. As far as companies are concerned, Sri Lanka is a great place to do business.   Q: Are there any new activities coming up for CIMA in Sri Lanka? A:  With CIMA partnering with the AICPA, the two accounting bodies have formed a joint venture to establish the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation to elevate to profession of MA. As the designation aims to recognise the most talented and committed MAs in the discipline, CIMA will be hosting for the first time in Sri Lanka the CGMA conference. So that is something new that CIMA is bringing in to the country.   Q: What is your opinion on the talent pool in the country? A: We see bright and ambitious people who are determined to work hard and exceed. The talent is certainly there. My advice for young Sri Lankans coming through this is that CIMA is not an easy qualification to obtain. Many people don’t pass the exams the first time, but that doesn’t mean they should stop. Work hard, be well prepared and don’t get knocked back. Keep going and the rewards will come. We see numerous Sri Lankans who have gone on to have great successes, both here and abroad as a result of the qualification that they gained in their own country. We see that our role is really to help them realise that potential and go on to great things.   Q: There is this notion that the role of Management Accountants (MAs) are changing. What would you say to that? A: It is definitely changing.  The role of MAs has changed an awful lot but there are some things that have been consistent for years. CIMA was founded 95 years ago by the Chairman of Unilever. He founded the body since the accountants in his business weren’t helping him with the decisions and to manage his business. They only told him how much tax he had to pay or the amount of profits the company made. They weren’t telling him what happened yesterday, what was going to happening tomorrow, and the issues that he will be dealing with in the future. So that is what is consistent. The shift that had taken place for MAs is the move to becoming the key strategic advisor to a business. It is no longer about traditional costing. It is about strategic business decision making. It is about being the CEO’s right hand and this is a very different place to be in. Accountants have moved out from the back office and are now working alongside the business as partners. They are seen to facilitate good businesses as well. If you look back in the past, accountants are the people who have said no. Now they are the ones who work hard to get the business to say yes. If it is not a good idea, they will tell you why. So there certainly is a big change in that line.   Q: With this change, what are the challenges faced by the MAs and how do you suppose this be overcome? A: I think the challenge for MAs is really to learn that business partnering skills and to keep their line of sight strategic. Sometimes it is very easy to learn the technical side of the job, and some people are attracted to accounting because they like numbers. But that’s not enough. It’s about how you can influence and persuade. It’s about how you can get a deeper understanding of the business, learn how people work and think. It is important they remember that information is presented to those who probably aren’t financial experts. They are presenting information to the guys who weren’t so good with numbers in school. In short, the challenges for MAs are typically around communication. If they cannot communicate, it doesn’t matter how brilliant they are with numbers.   Q:  With the corporate environment also continuously evolving, are there any changes made to the curriculum to keep up? A: We are constantly changing the curriculum and we review it every four or five years. During that period we reach out to hundreds of businesses around the world where we run roundtables and consultations. We want to find out from them what their business do, what they need, they  skills they are after, and also to find out what are the skills they would require in five years time. This we use to shape the syllabus. We go to companies from all parts of the world for this and not just the UK. The next new syllabus will come in the beginning of 2015 and it will be announced in the early part of 2014.   Q: Is the syllabus localised to suit the regions where CIMA is offered? A: We don’t localise our syllabus because we actually look for the highest international standards. Just to give an example, we don’t examine taxation, auditing or local law. Those are areas that are a preserve of national chartered accounting bodies. Those are not areas for which CIMA seeks to compete with local institutions. We believe CIMA offers something entirely different.   Q: Are there any difference in the way things are done by MAs in different region in terms of practices? A: Increasingly there isn’t. Globalisation means that we have consistent standards as to what is best and what is required. In smaller business, MAs will be doing a broader range of things. They are very likely to be working way out of their traditional line of business accounting. What we see is that MAs are becoming business partners in a particular area and end up staying in that area as a manager. Looking at the career path, we see an awful lot of MA’s are becoming high quality general managers. With the rise of business partner, this becomes a much easier step for accountants to make. So there is less regional variation in terms of practices. This means we are getting much more consistent across the globe.   Q: What best practices according to you should be brought to Sri Lanka by the MAs to uplift the profession? A: There are three things that MAs should bring to fulfil this objective. The first is they should bring top quality decision making to the table, which would allow the board to make correct decisions. The second element we need to see them bringing is an ethical approach where they need to act with integrity and act in the best interest of the company. The third we want them doing is to be genuine business partners and to genuinely work close to the business. This is important to ensure the company gets the best possible impact from the investment made by accounting function. By focusing on the three I mentioned, MAs will bring great value to the profession.   Q: What is the message that you would like to give out to the students? A: My message for them is to be ambitions, grab opportunities and don’t be knocked back of you have exam failures.