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Accountants Tally IT Skills

Certification lets CPAs bridge gap between technology and business

For years, business-technology managers have been told to learn more about business if they want to play a greater role in setting their companies' strategic agendas. Now there's another reason: keeping up with their counterparts in finance who are developing IT expertise.

In the past two years, 500 certified public accountants have been awarded special certificates after showing they have a deep understanding of IT. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a CPA accreditation group, issues the Certified Information Technology Professional certificate.

Such a credential may be more valuable than ever, given increased attention to company finances. The Center for Certified Information Technology Professionals, a division of the AICPA, says the certificate is a way for CPAs to enhance their credibility with clients not only as auditors but also as business-technology advisers who can bridge the gap between IT and other company executives.

Certificates are awarded to CPAs who have fulfilled one of three requirements: recent experience providing technological advisory and planning services to companies; self-education gained through regular attendance at technology conferences or other activities; or passing a technology certification exam. "Typically, the CPA does the taxes and bookkeeping; they don't know anything about technology," says Nancy Cohen, director of accreditations at the AICPA. "This is about showing that CPAs are qualified to deliver technology services."

Understanding technology is fast becoming an imperative for accountants, Cohen says. The AICPA has recently begun writing general technology questions to include in its accounting certification exams. "IT should be part of [CPAs'] general practice so they can understand the needs of the business and get the CIO and CEO to cooperate and talk," she says.

More attention is being paid to the intersection of finance and technology, which is a natural step in the evolution of the technology-enabled company, says Peter Greis, a principal in the technologies services group at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. "We're seeing both disciplines moving toward an understanding of each other, because IT is so ingrained in the environment."

An IT professional can't support the CFO and the finance department without an understanding of finance, Greis says. What's more, "in IT, there's a stronger focus today on understanding the technology budgets and where the money is going from a prioritization and investment-management perspective."

As the two professions learn more about each other's work, IT lacks a core credential that's part of the CPA life: a code of ethics. Many states require CPAs to attend classes in ethics in order to maintain their accreditation. An IT code of ethics could help build credibility, says David Fitzpatrick, a 10-year CPA and an IT consultant. "People today are wondering how IT can be more accountable," he says. Certification "should be used to help build some accountability into the IT part of the business."

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