AAT (SA): The professional home for accounting technicians

“The Association of Accounting Technicians South Africa [AAT (SA)] adds value where CFOs and strategic people need to make decisions. If you get the work right at support staff level there are less errors, the quality of financial statements should be better, you should see shorter month-end periods and cleaner audits,” says Nadine Kater, General Manager of the organisation. We had a chat to Nadine about the organisation and where it fits into the industry, as well as what value it adds to finance professionals.

"My passion for education and training comes from the fact that it changes people's lives in a substantial way," says Nadine Kater, current General Manager of the Association of Accounting Technicians South Africa - AAT(SA). The former high school Accounting teacher's strong feelings about the value of education were perhaps also influenced by her forebears, as her father and grandparents were teachers too. "Education and training gives people not only an individual skill but something they can use to change their own circumstances and their family's circumstances. It creates a positive cycle out of poverty," Nadine adds.

Formed in October 2008, AAT(SA) works with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) to professionalise finance support staff in the accounting profession. "AAT(SA) supports and regulates the profession for accounting technicians, registers them as members and encourages them to continue with continuing professional development (CPD)," explains Nadine, who is responsible for the accounting technician programmes.

"We are the professional home for accounting technicians. While other professional bodies do have qualifications in this space, we are the only one that focuses on accounting technicians directly to professionalise their area of work."

The organisation adds quantifiable value to the finance profession. Nadine says that while there are a lot of qualifications available at senior level, to build strong finance capabilities in finance within an organisation you need to build your team where the work actually starts, and that's from the basic transaction level. "Developing competent staff at the basic, principle level of accounting adds value to the entire accounting process," she says. "It adds value where CFOs and strategic people need to make decisions. If you get the work right at support staff level there are less errors, the quality of financial statements should be better, you should see shorter month-end periods and cleaner audits."

According to Nadine, there's little else out there quite like AAT. "For people already employed in a finance team, it's open access. There's no prerequisite qualification, so it allows those people to be recognised and receive a professional certificate and membership for the work they do - if they've been working in it for a while. We are also able to recognise their previous learning, so they don't have to go back and start from scratch. We can look at their experience and incorporate that into AAT," she explains.

"The way the coursework is structured and assessed, people learn to do the work in a competent fashion. It's not like traditional academics where you tie two things together - theory and practice. While they are learning they work through practical case studies, so they can change the way they work almost immediately."

Asked where vocational training fits into the grand scheme of things, Nadine calls it a "fast-track route to developing competent finance teams" because adequately trained individuals are able to add value sooner. "So you are setting the tone for people being able to do the work in a better way, almost immediately," she says. "I think it's very undervalued in South Africa, especially in finance areas. You find vocational training in so many other fields, such as education, medicine, engineering. There's full cognisance that it needs to be integrated but in the finance field it hasn't happened that quickly."

Nadine offers insight into what she believes are some of the most pressing challenges that CFOs today face: transformation, skills availability and the changing nature of the CFO role. "Directly in their work CFOs are coping with basic matters such as optimising, cost reduction and just generally getting the finance areas done well. They are also grappling with finance transformation in the face of change and linking that to the impact that technology has on the way they work. The role of CFOs has substantially changed over the years, and today is much closer to strategy. Their numbers have to make a difference and lead to scenarios that allow the C-suite and the board to make decisions based on the facts around the numbers," she says. "Skills availability poses another challenge. There's a gap between what's being taught in education programmes and the actual practical skills that employers need. In South Africa there's a huge skills shortage around finance, especially if you think about the challenges around finance transformation and technology."

Looking to the recent past and to the future, Nadine opines that South Africa has fared well through the global financial crisis because of our regulatory structures in the financial sector. She even goes as far as to say that the country is "still number one in the world for best auditing standards". There are, however, certain areas where we can still improve, she adds. "Organisations in general in South Africa are grappling with growth, and developing adequate business models that lead to sustainable growth. Growth has to be aligned with creating a future South Africa that is equitable across all races and all professional levels. There needs to be cognisance of that - that the growth needs to reach everybody in the organisation," she says.

With regards to what CFOs can do from a leadership perspective to help their teams to blossom and grow, Nadine believes it is important that everybody is kept abreast of the organisational strategy in order to understand their role in it, as well as how their role impacts decision-making. In this regard, mentoring and sharing knowledge and experience becomes critical, she says: "I think we need to be looking at the younger generation as willing to develop. There's a 'good opportunity to grow your own timber', as the saying goes. CFOs need to look beyond compliance and onto the impact of the work they are doing in general, as well as on business objectives."

Right, Nadine Kater and Dumisani Dlamini of the NAC

The rest of 2016 looks to be busy for AAT. According to Nadine, the organisation has a 2020 vision and is currently keenly focused on creating sustainable membership growth, as well as further developing the brand of the accounting technician. "We want employers to see the value of the accounting technician," she says. AAT has also started professionalising the public sector, Nadine adds, and has developed a unique qualifications offering for this sector. "We feel there's great opportunity to change the public sector, which will add value to the economy together," she explains.

"If we can get financial management right at government level we'll see reduced levels of corruption and government may well become an employer of choice. Ensuring that the country manages taxpayers' money in a consolidated way should lead to better service delivery and more confidence in government implementing the objectives and plans."

Asked what she wishes CFOs knew about AAT(SA) or better understood about the organisation, Nadine is quick to answer: "For them to understand that developing their finance support staff can have an immediate return on investment for the business and the strategic business objectives."