Positioning An International Professional Accounting Qualification in the Malaysian Context : The Approach, the Strategic Partners and the Benefits that Followed

In this sharing, I would like to relate my experience in how I went about positioning the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants in Malaysia. I was appointed the divisional director of CIMA Malaysia Division a few months after the then CIMA Malaysia Branch was upgraded to full divisional status way back in late 1989. I assumed my role and responsibilities as divisional director of CIMA Malaysia Division however only in April 1990.

Accounting Profession not Well Understood

Back then, accounting was still not that well understood or appreciated by the general public. Many were confused with the designations Certified Accountant, Chartered Accountant, Chartered Management Accountant and Certified Public Accountant. These were all, in my opinion, tier 1 accounting qualifications. However, to add to the confusion, there were also a number of tier 2 and tier 3 accounting qualifications, some from the United Kingdom and others from Australia. A few of these qualifications were also obtained via correspondence courses or distance education.

The public at large were, for the most part, unable to differentiate between these various qualifications. In addition, with the liberty to exaggerate and embellish facts, some local colleges were prone to tell a less than honest story about the qualifications that they were promoting.

Variety of Qualifications in the Local Scene

In Malaysia at that time, the most famous qualification was the ACCA membership from one of the Big 6 accounting institutes in the United Kingdom. However, the most highly rated qualifications were the CA memberships from England & Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. There is also a Malaysian Institute of Accountants established under the Accountants Act 1967 and the MIA plays a twin role as an institute as well as a regulatory body.

What is exactly is Positioning?

What exactly is positioning? Simply put, it is a marketing strategy that attempts to make a brand occupy a distinct and unique position, relative to the competing brands in the marketplace.

In positioning, one seeks to emphasize or highlight the distinguishing features of the brand… what it is; what it does; and what makes it distinct and unique from all the other brands. When this exercise is carried out carefully, over a staggered period of time and for better effect occasionally with credible partners, then the end objective is more easily achieved.

Key Priority at CIMA Malaysia

When I came on board as divisional director of CIMA Malaysia Division, I was advised by the Malaysia Council that one of my key responsibilities was to recruit students! This was actually the main activity undertaken by all the competitors. One of them, in fact, was streaking ahead of all others in the sheer number of students it was attracting to pursue its qualification.

However, when I turned up in London for my week long induction sessions, I was informed, in no uncertain manner, that my principal responsibility was to recruit new members. I was also made to understand that membership is the qualification… not merely the fact that one has passed the final examinations.

I was also informed by Sir George Vallings, then Secretary of CIMA that our numbers in Malaysia were distorted! We had at that time about 5,000 plus students, over 1500 passed finalists and only about 550 members! My main task was to persuade the huge number of passed finalists to make the effort to fill up their log books with all their work experience starting with financial accounting, then moving on to financial management and finally decision making and the rest. This was accomplished with remarkable success and within three years the membership had swelled to over 1000 members. When I left CIMA a decade later, the membership stood at 2,300 plus members.

Positioning CIMA and Management Accountants

Concurrent with the important work of converting passed finalists to membership, I felt, was the need to position CIMA and management accountants correctly especially with school leavers, colleges, parents, main stream media and employers. For far too many people, one accounting qualification was as good as the next!

They took the various advertisements at face value. Some college personnel were also guilty of favouring a particular qualification and expertly ‘ guided the students ‘ to the pre- chosen qualification.

Given this sorry scenario, I was determined to secure for CIMA and management accountants a worthy position, especially for those interested to work in the business sector. CIMA was thus projected and positioned as an accounting qualification for the business world. Those who were keen for a career in public practice were advised to pursue another qualification. Individuals who wished to use their accounting knowledge to assist businesses were advised to take up the CIMA qualification. CIMA was thus promoted as the accounting qualification preferred by the business world.

CIMA Lecture of the Year

The idea of hosting a Lecture of the Year series was mooted and successfully launched by CIMA Malaysia Division. The annual lecture became a high profile and widely reported event. A distinguished professional was invited to share his ideas, expertise and experience on a topical subject with members, fellow professionals and leaders of the business community.

The inaugural lecture was delivered by the chief executive of Bank Buruh. Subsequent lectures were delivered by the director general of the Economic Planning Unit, Prime Minister’s Department; secretary general to the Treasury, Ministry of Finance; executive director of the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research; chief executive officer of Pacific Bank; group finance director of Jardine Matheson Limited; and managing director of Pengurusan Danaharta Nasional.

Each Lecture of the Year was published and distributed to a select target public in Malaysia and worldwide. In the years that followed, a few other professional bodies organised similar high profile events. Imitation is the best form of flattery!

CIMA CEO FORUM

The CIMA CEO Forum was designed to bring together corporate chiefs and the leadership of CIMA Malaysia. The combined knowledge, experience and expertise of these professionals was drawn upon and shared in dealing with topical issues of importance to Malaysian business.

At each event and after time set aside for fellowship and dinner, there were presentations by a CIMA official and an invited business leader. Open discussion was encouraged thereafter among the select 24 chief executive officers present.

The twice yearly event was exclusively covered by our strategic partner, Business Times, Malaysia’s financial newspaper. A booklet containing the key ideas from the evening’s speakers as well as feedback from the chief executive officers was produced and thereafter widely circulated to MNCs, locally established companies and the business faculties of Malaysian universities.

CIMA Managerial Leadership Colloquium

The CIMA Managerial Leadership Colloquium was organised with another well respected, strategic partner. This twice yearly event was regularly held with the cooperation of the Malaysian Graduate School of Management, Universiti Putra Malaysia.

The colloquium was meant to bring together senior members of CIMA and post-graduate (MBA/DBA) participants at UPM as well as other local and foreign universities. The discussion of timely topics on managerial leadership and the sharing of ideas and experiences added to the collective intellectual capital of all concerned. It was an afternoon tea and light refreshments event with brief presentations by a CIMA member and a faculty member from the Graduate School. Open discussion thereafter ensued.

CIMA Malaysia Employer’s Group (MEG)

This special interest group was set up within CIMA Malaysia for a variety of reasons.

It proved to be a winner from the very start. It attracted a variety of companies from all sectors of the economy who were drawn to it for practical and sound reasons. At launch date, it had a credible membership of forty members and by the time I left CIMA Malaysia, then membership of the MEG was over 200 plus. For more details on the MEG, please refer to one of my earlier blog posts, Establishing a Special Interest Group.

Ensuring Appropriate and Regular Print Media Coverage

Another equally important aspect was the need to keep CIMA in the eye of the right target publics on a regular and consistent basis. This was achieved in a number of ways.

The results of important and relevant CIMA business surveys conducted were released to the business press from time to time. In addition, valuable information on such pertinent topics as Non Executive Directors – Their Value to Management and A Framework for Internal Control were condensed from the booklets produced by CIMA and then released to the local media as articles of interest. The New Straits Times regularly featured the articles that were submitted usually over half a page!

All these activities and programmes certainly helped to position CIMA and management accountants in the correct light. Increasingly the CIMA qualification was seen by many as most relevant. Employers, both MNCs and nationally established companies, set up training programmes to coach and groom management accountants within their group. They also sought CIMA Malaysia’s assistance when they had difficulty in recruiting para qualified and qualified management accountants. The CIMA membership qualification in Malaysia was and is still being seen as the professional accounting credential for the business world.

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