Dissertation: Controller as a strategic business partner – only a distant dream!

Virpi Ala-Heikkilä, kuva Heidi Glader
Employers emphasise the strategic role of the controllers in their branding, but in reality, the controllers remain prisoners of their operational role. The masculinity associated with the role threatens the social responsibility and diversity that companies seek. According to a doctoral thesis by M.Sc. (Econ. & Bus.Adm.) Virpi Ala-Heikkilä, this slows businesses down in reaching their productivity goals.

Ala-Heikkilä shows that there has been a big change in the image and ideal role of controllers over the past 20 years. From a number cruncher to a strategic business partner with a good understanding of business and collaboration and influencing skills.

– Employers are looking for strategy-driven MacGyvers and superheroes in their job advertisements, states Ala-Heikkilä, who will defend her thesis at the University of Vaasa on 11 February.

However, according to the study, the ideal role is partly employer branding, and job advertisements play an important role in that.

From an ideal, strategic role towards more dirty, operational tasks

The ideal role sounds attractive and important for business, but in practice the role is very operational. Controllers are limited by their skills and capabilities, a lack of tools and systems, and time-consuming, unwanted “dirty” routines. Conflicting expectations of business management and a powerless position in relation to business leaders push the role further away from strategic partnership.

Image of business controllers colliding with diversity targets

The study shows that controllers are perceived as masculine.

– This creates a conflict with the social responsibility and diversity targets set by the companies themselves, and most blatantly leads to the exclusion of women from top management, says Ala-Heikkilä. Achieving a more inclusive and equal workplace will help companies utilise their full potential.

Steps towards strategic partnerships have been taken, but there is still a long way to go to realise the full potential of controllers.

The study used extensive data from a global technology company, including 100 job advertisements. Thirty-one controllers and business leaders representing 14 different nationalities participated in the interviews.

Doctoral dissertation

Ala-Heikkilä, Virpi (2022) Evolving Role of Management Accountant – Dreaming of the Perfect Controller. Acta Wasaensia 480. Doctoral dissertation. Väitöskirja. University of Vaasa. Vaasan yliopisto.

Publication pdf: https://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-395-009-2

Public defence

The public examination of M.Sc. Virpi Ala-Heikkilä’s doctoral dissertation "Evolving Role of Management Accountant – Dreaming of the Perfect Controllerwill be held on Friday 11.2.2022 at noon at the University of Vaasa.

The defence will be organised online: https://uwasa.zoom.us/j/63326317610?pwd=UjRtck9Ma2N0eDdCWTROejF5aXJvdz09
Password: 980993

Professor Kari Lukka (University of Turku) will act as an opponent and Professor Marko Järvenpää as a custos.
The defence will be held in Finnish.

Further information

Virpi Ala-Heikkilä, tel. +358 50 334 3141, email virpi.alaheikkila (@) gmail.com

Virpi Ala-Heikkilä, M.Sc. (Econ. & Bus.Adm.) graduated from the University of Vaasa in 1998 and has also studied at FH Aachen in Germany, IMD Business School in Switzerland, Copenhagen Business School in Denmark and Oxford University in the UK. Ala-Heikkilä has extensive financial and leadership experience in global technology business. She has worked and lived in Finland, the United States, Norway and Germany. She speaks Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, English and German. She is currently working as the Global Controlling Transformation Leader at Hitachi Energy.

Photo: Heidi Glader

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