Harnessing data analysis to shape stories: the rise and rise of the management accountant

The role of management accountant is much more interesting than it used to be, and one which is also creating more opportunities.

The role of the management accountant has been transformed from number cruncher to a storyteller whose data-driven insights are shaping business decisions.

Management accounting used to be about delivering data tables and summarising what they said about the historical performance of the organisation, recalls Sue Murray FCPA, business estimating and pricing manager at defence contractor BAE Systems Australia.

It was an isolated role, and management accountants often spent more time with spreadsheets than they did interacting with colleagues, recalls Murray, who has spent 30 years in management accounting roles.

She remembers there was limited contact with senior leadership and the management accountant was there largely to source and deliver the numbers, leaving others to interpret and act on them.

Fast-forward to today, and the role has been transformed.

Dashboards and data analysis tools

Data analysis, forecasting, and visualisation tools such as dashboarding have enabled a redefinition of management accounting to be more strategic, engaged and, in its own way, a source of leadership.

Data is still critical but today’s management accountant, says Murray, needs to be able to “create business value from the data”.

“The modern management accountant needs to be able to form up and sell a value-creating position which is supported by the underlying data analytics.”

Telling stories with data analysis

“It is about collating complex data, but then analysing what it says and shaping it into a cohesive story that people can understand rapidly.

“If you just put sheets of numbers in front of busy leaders, they are likely to dismiss and ignore them.”

The “advances in data visualisation” are the key to this new storytelling role, explains Murray.

Management accountants need no longer rely on numbers and tables to get their message across; they can use dashboarding and infographics to boil a story down to its essence and get it across to a meeting of busy team members.

“These tools have the ability to take a lot of data and turn it into something which is quite easily digestible,” says Murray. “This has been a really positive change.”

Accountants as organisation leaders

Today’s management accountant, says Murray, is also more of a leader in the organisation.

Flatter organisational structures have helped bring them into more regular contact with senior management, who increasingly look to the management accountant for strategic advice.

This is a two-way street. Today’s management accountant also needs to have an understanding of the “strategic intent” of the business in order to derive value from the data, says Murray.

“They also need better soft communication skills,” she adds. “Finance people need to talk the language of the business rather than getting people to understand financial jargon.

“These soft skills help you to challenge and influence people to behave differently and take the business in directions suggested by the stories you can tell.”

Professional Development: SAP BusinessObjects: Dashboards and Analytics – this course provides an introduction to dashboarding, and providing key business data in a very concise visual manner.

Technology tools the game changer

Natasha Lam is a Brisbane-based management accountant working with artificial intelligence consultancy Blackbook.ai, her latest role after a two-decade career which began at airline Virgin Blue.

In her view, the development of technology tools has been the big game changer for management accountants, enabling them to focus on their interpretative skills, in particular, forecasting.

“Now that we don’t have to do so many mundane tasks we can spend our time doing what we were actually supposed to be doing all along,” says Lam.

“By that I mean being out there with the business and advising them, being a partner to the business and giving them advice on how they should do things to get a better result.”

When Lam started in management accounting, it was a case of “rocking up with the report every month” and discussing its contents.

Today, a big change has been that instead of looking backwards at past performance, the management accountant is able to harness new tools to deliver a predictive analysis, “which is so much more valuable”.

Lam agrees with Murray that the “softer skills” around storytelling are now key. “Storytelling is about getting the message across and also interpreting data, and that gives the business the insight it needs to make decisions,” she says.

Accountants advising on innovation

For Murray, the management accountant also has a role to play in innovation.

In her role at BAE Systems Australia, she deals with engineers who “have lots of good ideas” and who are now better informed by the data she provides.

“You have to target the right innovations,” says Murray.

“Where the management accountant is critical in this process is looking at the multiple ideas, then building and testing a business case around them, so we can target the ones which have the most commercial merit.

“Often the engineer doesn’t quite understand how to build that business case, but with a finance business partner looking at innovations they can be supported in doing that.”

Emerging new career opportunities

All of these factors mean that the role of management accountant is much more interesting than it used to be, and one which is also creating more opportunities.

“People will stay in the management accounting roles for longer now because there are more options,” says Lam.

“There is more to learn than there was before, and it can go in more directions now, so in many ways the world can be your oyster.”

  • The CPA Australia Management Accounting Conference will be held in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne between 6 - 14 August.
  • Sue Murray will be speaking at the CPA Australia Management Accounting Conference in Sydney and Brisbane on how management accountants create value as a finance business partner.
  • Natasha Lam will be speaking at CPA Management Accounting Conference in Brisbane, joining a line-up of panellists discussing career opportunities for management accountants.

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