The accounting industry has changed dramatically in recent times, from the traditional number-crunching function to a broader role involving strategic business thinking, corporate governance and environmental issues.
Alex Malley, chief executive of CPA Australia, believes the profession needs to make more of a concerted effort to explain its diverse business services to the public.
"Recent global events are demanding that accountants now show their credentials in business leadership, strategy and financial management," he said. "As a profession we need to explain how wide-reaching our activities actually are. Strong and visionary leadership is needed to restore confidence in the global financial system. As a profession, we need to be comfortable in our discipline and comfortable communicating what we do and why we do it.
"We should not be afraid to explain our role in pushing forward on good governance, ethics, rigour in financial reporting and measuring and reporting on our actions. Ultimately, these add up to good business leadership and strategies, and ensure financial stability.
"The accounting industry primarily used to be about managing tangible assets, but the breadth and influence has changed, with about 90 per cent of resources now intangible or environmental. We need to do a better job of explaining this."
Malley said issues including greater emphasis on sustainability and carbon trading had created a major opportunity for accountants to provide advice on the practical measures needed to achieve sustainability initiatives and carbon-reduction goals.
"As financial reporting becomes intractably coupled with non-financial reporting, trained strategic resources managers, accountants are primed to provide analysis and thought leadership," Malley said. This could include environmental reporting, human resources, corporate governance and social responsibility concepts.
He said as one of the world's largest professional membership accounting bodies, CPA Australia supported its members through education, training and professional development. It is through these channels that Malley believes members can take the profession to a new level. For example, Malley sees accountants central to the processes of better management of finite resources, open and transparent business practices, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility issues.
With more than 11,000 members in the Hong Kong and mainland branch of a combined international membership of 122,000, CPA Australia views the region as a strategic area for the development of new-style accountant leaders. Through anytime, anywhere on-line learning programmes and mentoring schemes, those who wish to become a certified public accountant are able to balance work and study. The distance-learning structure also works well for students living outside Australia as it saves time and money.
To highlight career possibilities for Hong Kong and mainland CPA members, the organisation engages with businesses and professional bodies in Hong Kong and the mainland to offer professional development initiatives, study tours, networking events and forums. A Career Market Day is also organised in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Macau to introduce students, university graduates and young professionals to career opportunities available as a certified public accountant.
CPA members also have access to a global network of experience and technical support that enables them to respond quickly to changing business environments. For instance, keeping up to date with corporate issues includes international accounting standards, corporate governance, environmental issues and even change management.
To gain the CPA qualification, candidates need to hold a recognised degree and pass fixed units of exams, and choose three electives from a possible 10 segments, such as international business or financial accounting, in addition to three years' relevant work experience. An open-book exam is designed to underscore the need for a thorough understanding of accounting rather than simply the ability to memorise details.
To make it easier for those without an accountancy qualification to become a certified public accountant, CPA Australia is in the final stages of introducing a stratified pathway designed to reduce the years it would normally take to become a qualified accountant. The pathway scheme will take into account existing study completed in any discipline.
Once a candidate has gained his or her CPA qualification, Malley believes a world of opportunity awaits them. "CPA graduates can pursue career opportunities in any industry, organisation or role," he said. "It is an international passport to travel for work. If an individual has a particular interest in IT [information technology], sport, entertainment, music or health, they can find a role."
And a career is not strictly limited to the finance area; many CPAs become chief executives and general managers or work as consultants. "The CPA designation is one of the world's most portable qualifications and is a valuable tool for opening doors locally and internationally," Malley said.