4 roles gaining popularity in finance

From ERP to FP&A, management accountants have opportunities to take on roles that are growing in prominence.
 New roles in finance

Management accountants’ broad skills and commercial experience mean they are in demand for an ever-expanding set of roles.

Recent research by global staffing firm Robert Half mentioned several roles that many businesses are now bringing into their finance functions, including enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems specialist, business analyst, project manager, and financial planning and analysis (FP&A) specialist.

Recruitment experts around the world broadly agree with this list, and they offered more detail about what these roles involve, their pros and cons, and how interested management accountants can develop in these areas.

ERP systems specialist

Companies rely increasingly on ERP systems and need finance professionals who can maximise their value. But employers frequently experience a shortage of ERP specialist candidates, the recruitment experts said. Such professionals need a mix of functional, technological, and soft skills, which can be hard to find.

One attraction of systems specialist roles is that they are varied and tend to focus on either implementation or superusers (individuals who bridge the gap between IT and end users).

Implementation often involves defining system needs, selection, and implementation from a finance perspective. Such specialists are also the initial linchpin between finance and technical teams, safeguarding processes, and helping ensure the result meets business needs.

Superuser roles focus on safeguarding the integrity of live systems and on ensuring users follow processes and protocols and use the system to full potential. This may include delivering internal training or upgrades.

Adrian O’Connor, founding director of London-based recruiting firm Global Accounting Network, said the rise of automation in accountancy has driven unprecedented demand for ERP systems specialists. As the availability of different systems grows, so does the skill range that employers seek.

“Typically, an accountant will move into this area when they discover an aptitude for systems after involvement in a project as part of another role,” he said. “Be warned that it can be difficult to return to mainstream finance after a few years in systems roles.

“Often roles last for a fixed period, so this route suits those drawn to contracting. Moving into systems is also the ideal way to future-proof skills.”

Tim Hird, executive director of Robert Half Management Resources in the US, said an attraction of this role is that you can use information from the latest technology to make recommendations for the business.

“Gaining ERP experience can be a challenge because companies use a diverse range of systems,” he said. “Professionals must be able to demonstrate general ERP proficiency and ability to learn new systems quickly.”

Dale Cawley, senior consultant of change management transformation at Marks Sattin in the UK, said one benefit is that ERP systems are evolving constantly, so you must keep learning in this role. Also, if you are contracting — say, on ERP implementation — the work usually has a long lifespan.

“However, once the project is over, the company may not require you further, and if your skills are in one niche system, you could have to travel to wherever the next job is,” he said.

This role involves collaboration with IT colleagues, so strong soft skills are just as important as technical knowledge, Cawley added.

“Employees can be resistant to change, so part of the role is overcoming human obstacles,” he said. “You also need a genuine interest in and understanding of the whole business, and ability to work across different departments and industries.”

Business analyst

Companies increasingly need help drawing meaningful insights from growing volumes of data. They seek business analysts with wide-ranging skills in technology, financial analysis, and nontechnical areas — and frequently offer good salaries to attract them, recruiters said.

These professionals enjoy working with the latest technology and mining data to tell the company’s story and make strategic recommendations.

With automation rising, business analysts have become more important because they are a critical source of information, said Eric Fine, a director of recruitment at employment agency Michael Page North America. “Without a business analyst, you may have an outstanding innovation, but it does not provide the desired outcome for the business,” Fine said.

Cawley said business projects are increasingly complex, so companies need analysts to bridge the understanding gap between the project manager, project team, and the stakeholder.

“It is increasingly difficult to find business analysts for permanent opportunities as they tend to go into contracting or move to project manager roles,” he said. “Any project manager will tell you a good business analyst is worth their weight in gold.”

Project manager

Companies need professionals who can manage high-profile initiatives, assemble teams, and develop project plans. Many organisations see project managers as essential for delivering transformation projects, where previously the positions were more ad hoc.

This role can be rewarding as it oversees projects from start to completion — identifying the problem and designing, building, testing, and implementing the solution. It follows a disciplined process and allows you to prove your track record and keep it interesting with varied projects.

A professional qualification in project management is often a prerequisite. Project managers can oversee any solution across technologies or business processes, Fine said.

“In a heavily regulated environment with lots of moving parts and different interests and goals, a strong project manager is essential for handling communications properly, anticipating issues, and delivering a seamless process,” he said.

Finding project managers can be a challenge for employers, the recruitment experts said.

Jeffrey Ng, director at Michael Page Singapore, said managers of finance transformation projects — including process improvements or systems enhancement — are particularly in demand as more companies introduce technology to improve and streamline processes.

Strategy and merger-and-acquisition projects also need talented professionals focused on investment-related decisions as companies look to expand geographically through direct investment or acquisition, he said.

“Talent supply is weak and candidate-driven in these areas, especially in finance transformation,” Ng said. “Apart from strong finance skills, professionals must be able to adapt and learn quickly. Companies also seek those with a commercial mindset and excellent interpersonal and communication skills.”

FP&A specialist

FP&A specialists have typically been part of the finance function. In the past few years, companies have relied increasingly on FP&A specialists for greater insights that can identify efficiency improvements and grow the business.

Competition to hire FP&A professionals is often intense. These specialists, particularly those in senior and management positions, play a crucial role in setting strategy, and they can see their influence and impact on the business growing, recruiters said.

“As organisations improve the quality and visibility of their information in an uncertain climate, the role is rising in prominence,” O’Connor said. “These roles are less business-facing. But they do often work with a range of nonfinance heads, so offer varied experience and are a great stepping-stone to wholly commercial finance roles.”

One potential downside is that FP&A specialists can have heavy workloads at financial period ends, O’Connor said.

— Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.