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

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 relevant than others and should the report be refocused? The people skill is to explain your analysis in a concise and understandable way to the operations director who doesn't fully understand variance analysis. The leadership skill is to recommend improvements, perhaps in the relevance, detail and presentation of the report.

The task at Management level is also likely to follow a logical path. For example, you may be presented with information concerning company X's financial situation and its need for new funds. The technical skill is to identify the most appropriate financing method. The business skill is to ensure that the funding meets the entity's needs. The people skill may be to explain your choice in a concise and understandable manner to managers who may not have an accounting background. The leadership skill may be to manage the process of obtaining the funds, which could entail forming a team to develop the business plan.

At Strategic level, you may be presented with a serious threat to the business and be asked to come up with a strategic response. The technical skill is to identify a suitable response. The business skill is to ensure that this response is appropriate to the industry and company Z's position in it. As at Management level, the people skill is to explain your choice in a concise and understandable way to Z's directors, who may not have an accounting background. The leadership skill may be to manage the implementation of the strategy.

What to expect

Now that we understand the context of the Case Study Exams, let's look at their format in detail.

Seven weeks before each exam you'll be able to access the pre-seen material. This concerns a fictional company but is based on a real business or industry. The new material provided in the exam will be broken down into a series of "triggers" and "tasks". A trigger is an extra item of information about the company, usually describing a development or a problem that needs resolving. This may come in the form of an email, a set of accounts or a newspaper report--just as it might when you are at work. You will then be asked to perform one or more tasks based on each trigger.

Most of the exams you'll have sat until now have focused on a single subject, testing your knowledge of that subject and, possibly, your ability to apply this knowledge. The CIMA Case Study Exams require you to demonstrate integrated knowledge across all three pillars of the syllabus, with a focus on application, analysis and evaluation. These are higher-level requirements than those imposed by most of the preceding objective tests, so they often prove challenging to students. The aim is to reflect the reality of cross-functional working and to get you performing the kinds of tasks that management accountants might be expected to do in the course of their work. The emphasis is on skills eg, research, analysis and presentation --rather than knowledge, as the technical content of the syllabus has already been covered in the objective tests.

A number of factors combine to ensure that the Case Study Exam is a suitably difficult hurdle to overcome before you can proceed to the next level of the qualification:

* The fact that a single exam will cover all three learning pillars.

* The need to integrate your knowledge.

* The need for good time management.

So how can you surmount all these challenges? First, you should start your exam preparations as soon as you have completed the objective tests at the level concerned, as you need to be comfortable with the technical content. If you ever thought that you could afford to forget what you learnt as soon as you left the exam hall, those days are gone you will be expected to retain all your knowledge. It is clearly easier to do that than to relearn everything when you start preparing for the Case Study Exam.

CIMA's official texts for these exams provide diagnostics to help you to assess whether you have the requisite knowledge or not. Ensure that you retain all of your study materials (cue cards are a great help) as you progress, because you'll want to avoid having to return to each full study text if at all possible.

You won't be expected to perform detailed calculations in any Case Study Exam, although you may need to prepare some brief illustrative numbers. Bear this in mind when you are looking at the technical content and don't get too bogged down in the details of, say, a question concerning a consolidated income statement. But do remember that you may have to interpret someone else's calculations, so you will still need to understand all the numbers.

You are provided with material before the exam so that you can absorb yourself in the affairs of the organisation concerned and be able to attempt the tasks required as though you were actually a member of its finance department. You therefore need a full understanding of

the scenario and an appreciation of the firm's industry. The pre-seen material has been designed to give you all of the necessary information, so there should be no need for separate detailed industry research. An awareness of real issues and companies can make you feel more confident, but (unlike in previous Case Study Exams) no marks are directly available for presenting the findings of research conducted in real world.

It's possible to use pre-seen material to generate ideas about the tasks that might be required of you in the exam and thereby identify technical content that could prove relevant. This is a useful exercise, but it is important to resist the urge to predict what the examiner will ask. It's all too easy to become so convinced about what will be required that the actual exam comes as a real shock to the system when it asks you to do something different.

One vital activity when preparing for the exam is to practise writing full answers. It is tempting, when faced with practice exercises, to make a few notes and then look at the suggested solution and tell yourself that this is exactly what you would have written. Resist this temptation--you don't want to make your first proper attempt at writing an answer in the exam. Proper practice here will also help with time management. This is particularly important in the Case Study Exams because they impose a time limit for each task. Once this expires, you must move on to the next task.

When you have completed a practice exercise, you can review the model answer alongside your own response. It's possible to make a number of points that may not be in the suggested solution that would earn credit in the exam, so don't feel disheartened if the answers don't match exactly.

Case Study Exam candidates would be well advised to do the following:

* Check CIMA's website regularly for further information and updates.

* Register on the Pearson Vue website to gain access to the pilot exams.

* Work through the relevant CIMA official study texts, ensuring that you complete the practice exercises properly.

* Review the pre-seen material thoroughly as soon as it's available.

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Exam notice

Visit www.cimaglobal.com regularly for updates

November s exam results

The results of the November 2014 exams were released on 18 December. This was the last sitting under the 2010 professional qualification syllabus.

The transition from the 2010 syllabus to the 2015 syllabus

The institute has transferred all of your existing exam passes and exemption credits over to the 2015 syllabus. You will be able to see these results and how they have been transferred by checking your "My CIMA" account.

2015 syllabus and assessments

You are now able to schedule your own objective tests and Case Study Exams.

To read about the 2015 syllabus, visit www.cimaglobal.com/syllabus2015.

To find out more about the 2015 assessments, visit www.cimaglobal.com/2015assessments.

To try the 2015 practice exams on CIMAconnect, visit connect.cimaglobal. com/resources and search the study resources for "practice exam".

To find answers to many frequently asked questions about the syllabus, visit www.cimaglobal.com/2015FAQs.

Taking assessments in 2015

For information on how to book an assessment, visit connect.cimaglobal.com/ scheduling-exam.

Objective tests at Operational, Management and Strategic level are available on demand. There are four windows a year when you can take the Integrated Case Study Exams. Within each window, these exams will be available to sit for five days from Tuesday to Saturday.

Check the exam timetable at connect. cimaglobal.com/exam-dates for the dates of all the Case Study Exams in 2015, along with the opening and closing dates for submitting entries, the results dates and the release dates for pre-seen material.

Pre-seen materials

The pre-seen material for February's Integrated Case Study at Operational level is now available in CIMAConnect --as are the pre-seen materials for the Gateway, Management level and Strategic level Case Study Exams in March. Visitconnect.cimaglobal.com/resources and search the study resources for "preseen material".

Computer-based assessments at Certificate level

Visit CIMAConnect (connect.cimaglobal.com/scheduling-exam) to find comprehensive information about entering for a computer-based assessment.

Certificate online practice tests

Free online practice tests are available for each of the subjects at Certificate level. Visit connect.cimaglobal.com/ resources and search the study resources for "online assessment practice".

You can access the full set of practice questions, in both "practice" mode and "timed assessment" mode, through CIMA Aptitude, the institute's official online learning resource, which is now available to purchase at a discounted rate. For further information, visit www.cimastudy.com/coursesCIMA_aptitude.php.

Queries

Visit www.cimaglobal.com/students to see whether your question is answered there, or get in touch with CIMA Contact (cima.contact@cimaglobal.com) or your local office (see panel, opposite page).

Code of ethics CIMA members and students are required to comply with the CIMA code of ethics.

Ensure that you are familiar with the code and how to apply it. Further resources are available at www.cimaglobal.com/ethics. Also see this month's Hot Potato, page 10.

By Helen Crofts and the Case Study Exam writers

Helen Crofts is a content consultant for Kaplan Publishing who is part of the team preparing the CIMA official study texts for the Case Study Exams.

Examples of how you might need to apply your technical
skills in the three Case Study Exams

                                  Expressed as a
               Lead learning      competency         Illustrative
Level          outcome            statement          task

Operational    Discuss costing    "I can             For many years
               methods and        interpret a        company V has
               their results      variance           operated care
               (P1 A1--           analysis           homes for the
               Management         statement and      elderly. In
               Accounting)        make               search of
                                  recommendations    growth, it
                                  to improve         recently opened
                                  performance"       a hotel. In its
                                                     meeting at the
                                                     end of Ql, the
                                                     management team
                                                     was shown a
                                                     variance
                                                     analysis report
                                                     showing several
                                                     adverse
                                                     variances. The
                                                     operations
                                                     director has
                                                     warned that, if
                                                     this situation
                                                     continues, most
                                                     of the team
                                                     will not be
                                                     paid a bonus.
                                                     Some members
                                                     feel that V's
                                                     performance
                                                     management
                                                     system is
                                                     unfair. You
                                                     have been asked
                                                     to evaluate the
                                                     system and
                                                     recommend
                                                     improvements.

Management     Discuss types      "I can advise      Company X has
               and sources of     on different       decided to
               long-term          methods for        purchase and
               finance for an     raising            redevelop a new
               incorporated       long-term          factory.
               entity (F2         finance"           Finance is
               A1--Advanced                          required.
               Financial                             Discuss the
               Reporting)                            pros and cons
                                                     of using debt
                                                     finance
                                                     compared with
                                                     raising further
                                                     equity.

Strategic      Evaluate the       "I can advise      Company Z,
               process of         on and             which competes
               strategy           recommend          in the computer
               formulation (E3    strategic          games industry,
               B1 - Strategic     options"           is worried
               Management)                           about a recent
                                                     sharp decline
                                                     in its sales
                                                     and profits.
                                                     The board
                                                     wishes to
                                                     prepare a
                                                     strategic
                                                     response.
                                                     Evaluate the
                                                     situation and
                                                     the options for
                                                     correcting it.
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Title Annotation:All pillars
Author:Crofts, Helen
Publication:Financial Management (UK)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2015
Words:3372
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