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November 25, 2013

Shades of Grey – or What’s in a name?

By Sue Almond

Despite being described as ‘grey’ – or worse – by some of my more cynical family members, I am proud to describe myself as an accountant.

This may be partly a reflection of the time and effort to gain the qualification, as well as a more general observation of what it means to be a professional accountant.

The term carries gravitas and to me conveys a commitment to quality and ethical behaviour. It also says something about the desire to continue learning and developing, since the business world never stays still.

To me, accountancy is very much a profession, underpinned by core values that are relevant to any profession. And those values are recognised more generally, such that (with a few notable exceptions) describing oneself as an accountant carries a certain credibility and respect.

But this is not the case everywhere, especially in countries that have had longstanding communist influence or where the profession is relatively new. The term ‘accountant’ can often be synonymous with ‘bookkeeper’, which compounds the perceived greyness.

Highly skilled individuals who have passed demanding exams and demonstrated the required range of competencies to become members of a respected professional body are in danger of being pigeonholed into routine processing roles. I know the phrase accountant or accountancy can sometimes be lost in translation, but we need a global understanding of just what it really means.

The challenge for the profession in environments such as these is to demonstrate the broad range of skills that accountants can bring to business and the economy. In China, there has been much work recently on the role of the ‘management accountant’ – where the phrase ‘management’ has been introduced to highlight the more forward-looking, decision-useful role.

On a recent visit to China, I spoke at the Beijing National Accounting Institute – a selective organisation designed to really upskill the stars of the future. Together with Alan Johnson, a CFO and a member of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), I led the morning training for over 100 nominated individuals from northern China in a highly interactive and challenging session.

The quality of the debate was first class and extremely enjoyable – ranging from ethics to considerations of price sensitive disclosures and risk analysis for public sector and state-owned enterprises. It was very clear that this group are shaking off the ‘grey bookkeeper’ mantle.

I recounted my experience to the head of ACCA in Poland, who drew some parallels with the situation there. I had attended the annual ACCA CFO Summit in Warsaw and been very taken by the appetite for leading-edge development – again largely fuelled by the desire to demonstrate the pro-active and broad remit of the profession.

There is huge demand to leverage the global research that we conduct, whether in areas such as the future role and skills of the CFO, to cybercrime and integrated reporting.

So while the challenge for accountants everywhere is to demonstrate the value and relevance of our profession, this manifests itself differently in different environments and so needs different actions by governments and the profession.

In a profession often described as grey, we see different shades of grey – surely not 50?

Sue’s previous blog post

Accountancy is looking different


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