As business growth drives a healthy demand for finance and accounting professionals, companies are on the lookout for candidates with general accounting skills.
A solid foundation is key, including knowledge of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the framework for all financial accounting in the United States, and International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), the global equivalent of GAAP. The latter is becoming increasingly relevant as companies expand their operations internationally.
Greater reliance on business analytics
But today’s companies also need teams that are focused on big data and how to effectively tap it. Why? Insights from business analytics used to be “bonus” information. Nice to have, but of limited use. Today, the ability to analyze data to support strategic decisions is essential for any firm hoping to remain competitive.
A majority of finance leaders acknowledge this need. In a Robert Half survey, 61 percent of chief financial officers (CFOs) interviewed said expertise in business analytics, such as business intelligence and data mining, is mandatory for some or all of their accounting and finance employees.
"Firms increasingly rely on their financial teams to deliver strategic guidance and data-driven recommendations," said Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half. "This demand will only accelerate as companies are able to tap into greater volumes of information."
Finance professionals polled in the Protiviti 2015 Finance Priorities Survey said they rank strategic planning as the top priority for financial analysis. While the need for these skills will vary according to the size and makeup of a company, respondents reinforced the notion that these capabilities are shifting to a “must have” for employers as they plan for the future.
Organizations with larger accounting processes may have specialized analytical software, such as MicroStrategy, IBM's Cognos Business Intelligence and Oracle’s Hyperion. Each of these advanced accounting tools harvests data with the aim of identifying opportunities to be pursued and problems to be solved.
Knowledge of business analytics is a key to stepping up the career ladder for finance professionals. Organizations need candidates with advanced skills, including:
- Business intelligence
Business analytics requires a deep understanding of the systems used to gather information. Consequently, there’s more pressure on finance professionals to hone their business intelligence skills. Even a basic understanding of how information systems are structured can make it easier to work with an IT team and intelligence analysts.
- Data mining
Obtaining raw data is one challenge, but turning that data into actionable insights is quite another. Data mining often requires strong mathematical skills, and financial professionals with a background in statistics are at an advantage. Finance team members can also help guide data collection and ensure that the correct issues are being measured.
- Data-driven decision making
It’s not always obvious or easy to know how to make decisions based on big data. Yet it’s the kind of strategic responsibility that is increasingly falling to the finance department. Moving forward, team members must be able to react quickly to new insights — and have the communication and project management skills to help stakeholders across the organization understand their findings.
Sharpening those skills
Business analytics skills are crucial in today’s data-driven world, but they aren’t the only attributes in high demand. Enhancing specific software skills is an investment that can pay handsome dividends. Here are some ideas for doing that:
- Excel training
Many software publishers run workshops or offer courses to help users get the most from their packages. For example, the Microsoft Office Specialist Expert (MOS) certification includes Excel training. This most widely used program in finance contains a range of useful tools such as analytical formulas, pivot tables and customizable charts.
- SQL courses
Finance professionals with database skills such as Structured Query Language (SQL) are at an advantage, and the ability to use it can prove lucrative. Courses from both online sources and bricks-and-mortar training providers teach how to use SQL to store, query and manipulate data in ways that can be much more flexible than options found in off-the-shelf software packages.
- ERP tutorials
ERP software analyzes data from ledgers, balance sheets and financial statements to generate reports that help finance professionals make decisions regarding purchasing, inventories and product planning. Online tutorials for your specific ERP solution are a good way to ensure the best results from the tools.
Candidates can also boost their careers by acquiring certifications or earning specific degrees.
The Robert Half Salary Guide for accounting and finance lists the CPA as the most sought-after accreditation and the master’s of business administration (MBA) as the most in-demand degree for senior-level finance and analytical roles. Beyond those, employers rated these seven certifications as the most desirable:
- CFA (chartered financial analyst)
- CGMA (chartered global management accountant)
- CIA (certified internal auditor)
- CISA (certified information systems auditor)
- CMA (certified management accountant)
- CPP (certified payroll professional)
- PMP (project management professional)
If you’re already working full-time with little time to devote to honing your business analytics or other skills, your employer may be more willing to help you these days. That’s because, in today’s job market, it’s not a simple matter for companies to find finance talent with the analytical skills they need. As a result, some organizations are working to develop these skills in their current employees.
Robert Half research indicates that the vast majority of firms (82 percent) are using in-house training as a primary method of developing business analytics skills. Thirty-five percent are investing in external training through tuition reimbursement. Forty-one percent offer internal mentorships. And 40 percent of companies arrange for staff members to work with consultants or attend outside industry conferences and events.
If your employer doesn’t offer training, consider volunteering for projects that will help you gain business analytics and other skills. They could make the difference between success and failure in the future.
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