Integrated case study exams at strategic, management and operational levels.

AuthorCrofts, Helen
PositionAll pillars

The 2015 syllabus requires students to sit not one but three Case Study Exams. Each is a thorough test of your ability to apply your skills in a setting designed to match a real work situation as closely as possible

In the past there was plenty of time for candidates to get used to the idea of a Case Study Exam, because they didn't really have to think about it until they neared the end of their studies --although it may still have come as a shock to the system. But procrastination is never a good thing, so CIMA has made life so much easier for students on the 2015 syllabus by giving them the opportunity to take this type of assessment at each level of the qualification.

Before we look at what's new and how to prepare for it, let's consider why the institute is obliging people to take these exams so much earlier in their studies. It's all about testing your competence-your ability to apply what you've learnt to real business problems. This is what employers say they require from the qualification. CIMA has designed a framework that splits the management accountant's role into four generic skills or "competencies": technical, business, people and leadership. The syllabus designers recognise that your role will change as you progress in your career, so they have given these skills different weightings at each level of the qualification. For example, there is a greater emphasis on technical skill at Management level, but by the time you reach Strategic level you'll be expected to be equally adept in all four areas.

In the Operational level Case Study Exam, the assumption is that you're a finance officer dealing with both day-today matters and specific issues that are relevant to a developing business. Often these will be relevant to fast-moving smaller firms or older established SMEs facing the challenges of a changing commercial environment. Although you're at a relatively junior level in the organisation, you are a key member of a team in which many colleagues don't have the accounting and information management skills that you possess. The organisation relies on your skills in producing and communicating accurate information, which can form the basis for sound advice.

At Management level, the assumption is that you are a manager reporting to the CFO and other senior executives. They will require your advice in dealing with problems and evaluating opportunities.

At Strategic level, the assumption is that you are a senior manager reporting directly to the board of directors, who will also need your guidance in dealing with problems and evaluating opportunities.

At both Management and Strategic levels, the expectation is that you will be able to adapt what you have learnt during your studies to address the issues arising in the scenario. These will of course depend largely on the nature of the organisation concerned and its business. Your position as a manager means that you'll often have to give senior executives very specific advice, because they won't necessarily have the time to analyse a problem in depth themselves.

At all levels, the Case Study Exams will enable you to show your ability in analysing various scenarios (demonstrating technical skills) and determining how these affect the organisation concerned (business skills). You may need to explain the key issues to nonaccountants who are senior managers (people skills) and indicate areas that require improvement (leadership skills). Remember that these exams are less of a test of what you know; they're far more about what you can do. At Management level, technical skills have the heaviest weighting, but they are still worth only 39 per cent overall. So, as with the exam at Operational level, you will not be able to pass it by relying on these alone. At Strategic level, each skill is given equal weighting, which means in effect that displaying technical skills alone would score you 25 per cent at most.

The table on the opposite page shows how you might need to apply your technical skills in a Case Study Exam. Many more examples are given in the CIMA official study texts for each level. But, as you can see here, there is a significant progression from one level to the next. You can expect much more complex and integrated tasks by the time you reach the final exam.

At Operational level the task is likely to follow a logical path. For example, the variance analysis report you have been given at company V may not be set out as expected and could contain errors. The technical skill is to identify any mistakes and explain which variances have been spotted, how they have been calculated and what they indicate. The business skill is to consider the analysis in the wider context of the scenario: is this type of analysis relevant to V's situation? How can it help in managing the business more effectively? Are some elements more...

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