In my early years as a graduate accountant the CFO would greet the team early in the morning with a walk-by to every desk. He would say energetically, “Good Morning, Vlad! How are you adding value today?!”
This left a lasting impression and I think is an excellent primer for any finance professional. As a Systems Accountant, I am often asked to elaborate on what I do - and it seems the question comes from a general lack of knowledge of what a System Accountant actually does and what value the role brings to the finance function.
Firstly, let me borrow an idea from the sciences: Fractals. A fractal is a pattern that repeats itself on every scale. I like to think of Finance as a fractal of the larger organisation. Let’s assume a typical business C-Suite: CEO, CFO, MD, CTO, COOthen we naturally assume that the CFO is the head of the Finance function.
The fractal concept takes the C-Suite pattern of the larger business and repeats its structure within Finance as if the department was it’s own business. The CFO would then become the CEO of Finance, the Group Controller would be the MD and the Finance Accountant the CFO etc. The distinction however, is that the Technology side of the Finance Business has been outsourced so there wouldn’t necessarily be a CTO but I would argue that the COO or Operations function is still an essential value-add function of running the Finance department as a business.
I would argue that the Systems Accountant is in fact playing the role of a COO and has 3 distinct parts to play:
- Business/Systems Analyst
- Project Management
- Product Development
By taking this “fractal” perspective, we can specialise the activity of “technology and computers” into something much more appropriate and relevant without getting in the way of producing our financial outputs.
1- Business Analyst
This role functions at the coal-face and is directly involved in analysing how processes work. Value is created through efficiencies, knowledge transfer and empowerment of the finance team.
This role is often where Systems Accountants are “born” because the analysis usually gives way to solution creation and technology. This can have humble beginnings such as Excel formulas and macros through to report writing. ERP upgrades are an excellent stepping stone and before you know it you have an Analyst that is able to view the finance function from both a micro and macro perspective.
2 - Product Development
This role adds value by taking the finance function outputs, solutions and initiatives and then applying a structured path for future enhancements that are in line with strategic corporate objectives.
One of the critical areas of value loss is where department finds itself unable to cope with an upheaval or upgrade of a system/process. Reliance on 3rd party expertise can help in the short term, but solutions are never static and symbiosis is often forgotten once it’s been put in place. Keeping, maintaining and developing solutions is a fundamental value-add activity of this role.
In addition, I would also argue that the “product” that is being developed is a combination of output/process/solutions and human capital talent. Some may say this more of an HR role, but I disagree - this needs to be developed in house in conjunction with HR so that the talent is grown from within the function.
3 - Project Management
This will be familiar to all who have run projects before. However, learnings from the project management discipline often escapes many accountants who just want it done yesterday. Concepts like Agile or Scrum which are borrowed from software development can easily be incorporated and amended for the finance department by way of a project manager that can cross the bridge between the finance team and other non-finance disciplines.
These days, despite the availability of project management training and education, the basic disposition of many accountants I have come across is that someone else should handle this role. I would argue this as an excellent justification for having a Systems Accountant in your team. The project management skill is fundamental to any systems accountant and the department can leverage this on more than just finance projects. This can cross over to any integration or bridging with any other department in the business - and the role can act as an operational spokesperson or representative of Finance in other operational taskforces.
So in summary, if the systems accountant role is lacking in your finance function, I would look to how the value-creation I’ve outlined above is being absorbed in your current team pool and in your department as a whole. Is there an opportunity to reposition your Finance team to replicate the larger business structure and therefore align your purpose and value-creation objectives? I would argue that the 3 roles are essential for future proofing the finance value-creation process into the post-modern age.