The Advanced Performance Management (APM) exam looks at different types of performance management systems which can be employed by organisations. By performance management systems, we include techniques such as budgeting, variance analysis, balanced scorecards and other such techniques used by organisations to manage their performance so they can plan and control their activities better. It also covers areas such as remuneration schemes for management and employees which attempt to motivate them to work towards the objectives of the organisation.
While performance management systems are covered in PM, at APM additional models of performance management are included such as value based models, corporate failure models and other strategic performance models like the performance pyramid. In addition, candidates must be able to advise on what type of systems are relevant to a particular organisation. Different organisations have different needs, and candidates must be able to understand these, and be aware of the factors that determine what type of management accounting information is needed.
Finally, in APM, there is more detailed discussion of qualitative factors surrounding performance management.
Candidates need to have much more depth of knowledge than at PM. So rather than just knowing the rationale of the Balanced Scorecard and being able to recommend goals and measures under the perspectives; in APM, candidates might be asked to evaluate the use of a balanced scorecard in the context of a specific scenario.
Since APM builds on PM, the examiner could assume you know all of the PM topics. In practice, the examiner is unlikely to examine PM topics in a lot of detail unless they are also specifically included within the syllabus for APM too. It is advisable however to have a good knowledge of certain areas of the PM syllabus before starting to study APM. The areas of particular importance are as follows:
Activity-based costing, which is in Section B1 of the PM syllabus, feeds into activity-based management in the APM syllabus (Section E). Some activity‑based management questions in APM exams have required candidates to perform calculations using activity‑based costing principles, so it is important to have a good knowledge of this area.
The other specialist cost and management accounting techniques included in the PM syllabus which are also relevant to APM are target costing, lifecycle costing and environmental management accounting. However, as these are specifically included within the APM syllabus, candidates should be able to refresh and increase their knowledge of these from their APM materials.
Budgeting and variance analysis are important areas. In APM, the focus is on whether budgets are a useful tool or not, and which types of budget are useful in what situations. It is useful, therefore, to be familiar with the following budgeting sections from PM syllabus:
While quantitative aspects of budgeting have been excluded from this list, candidates would have to have to deal with some maths – for example to reforecast a rolling budget, perform some activity based budget calculations or produce a flexed budget. Candidates would not be required to do detailed calculations involving techniques such as regression and time series analysis.
Standard costing and variance analysis (Sections D3-D6) are core management accounting tools, so you do need to be aware of them, and be able to discuss whether they are useful techniques in a specific scenario and whether they provide useful information to management. Candidates may also be required to calculate variances at APM, so it is important to understand how to do these – particularly those variances with strategic implications.
Decision making is an area that sometimes gets examined in APM. Candidates may be asked to evaluate a decision, so some calculation may be required in such questions. It is important, therefore, to be familiar with relevant costing principles, which are in Section C1 of the PM syllabus. An awareness of CVP analysis (Section C2) is also useful, especially the ability to calculate break-even, although it is extremely unlikely that you would be required to draw any of the charts in APM. In addition, a practical understanding of cost structures and cost behaviour (fixed and variable) will often be useful in analysing and giving advice in a scenario.
Knowledge of limiting factors (Section C3) is required, not just for decision making, but also because it feeds into transfer pricing. You should know how to solve basic limited factor decisions. It would not be necessary to go into solving linear programming problems for APM.
Pricing (Section C4) is not specifically in the syllabus for APM, but the examiner has indicated that he would expect candidates to be able to calculate a simple cost plus price. Pricing is also relevant in the context of transfer pricing. An awareness of practical pricing strategies employed by companies would also be useful.
Risk and uncertainly is an important factor in control of an organisation so the PM topics on risk and uncertainty should also be known. Particularly important areas are expected values, maximax, maximin, minimax regret and the use of sensitivity analysis, and these have all been examined in APM. It is unlikely that you would be asked to produce a decision tree in APM but knowledge the underlying principles of probability and joint probabilities would be useful.
Performance measurement and control (Sections E1-E4) is introduced at PM, and is a core topic at APM. However, many of the relevant learning outcomes from PM are also included within the APM syllabus too, so you should be able to pick up the required knowledge of this area from your APM study material rather than needing to go back and review your PM notes. The performance measurement topics are developed further at APM with the introduction of new techniques such as value-based management, economic value added (EVA™), the performance pyramid and the corporate failure models.
The core part of your APM preparation will be your APM study materials. When studying for APM, it is not necessary or desirable to learn everything in your study materials parrot fashion. Simply repeating what you have seen in your study manuals in an exam is never likely to satisfy the examiner’s requirements. What is important is to read the materials, understand and appreciate the issues, and think about them. Then practise past exam questions dealing with these areas. This will help you to develop the skills of critical analysis that you will need both in the exam, and in your professional work.
Have a broad knowledge of the syllabus. It is better to have a reasonable knowledge of the entire syllabus, than a perfect knowledge of say 60% of it, and not to know anything about the rest.
Being a Strategic Professional exam, it is important to read around the subject too. There are plenty of technical articles on the ACCA website relating to APM, and these are essential reading. These articles have a long shelf-life so the older articles are equally as important as the articles from the past few years.
As an APM tutor, I find that using real-life examples helps my students to understand the concepts covered during the courses and makes the materials come alive. These examples can be found in quality newspapers and news websites, so try to read a good quality newspaper/website, if not every day, at least once a week.
Practising past exam questions under timed conditions is essential. A big part of the challenge in APM (and indeed all the Strategic Professional exams) is being able to analyse a detailed scenario, and provide relevant answers to the questions asked. Unless you practise this in advance, you are at a big disadvantage in the exam hall. Many students get into the terrible habit of reading the question and then auditing the answer. This is a waste of time. You only learn from a question if you really try it yourself.
Finally, you should also read the examiner’s reports from the last sittings. These provide a useful insight into where students have done well or badly in previous exams. You can learn from their mistakes. It also gives an insight into what the examiner likes and dislikes.
APM is a Strategic Professional exam, and the examiner expects candidates to demonstrate the skills that they would need when working in a professional environment as an advisor or consultant. This is more than is required at PM.
In PM, you are required to be able to apply given techniques to the short scenarios in the exam. For example, a question may ask you to calculate materials mix and yield variances for the last month. You are also required to be able to interpret numbers at PM, for example, using pre-calculated variances to assess the performance of the sales manager. The scenarios in PM are usually fairly short, and the questions specify very clearly what is required of you.
In APM questions, particularly in Section A, you will need to be able to deal with much longer scenarios. The examiner is seeing if you can apply your knowledge to real, life like situations. This tests your ability to deal with a larger amount of data and identify the most important issues. Can you see the big picture when presented with a lot of detail?
One APM question may well focus on several different parts of the syllabus, so at this level you can’t just view each topic as being in a separate box, you have to appreciate how they are all linked. This is much more like real life.
The APM syllabus builds on the knowledge covered in PM, and there are certain PM topics that you should know well before embarking on APM. Much higher skills are required at APM, and there is much greater application of your knowledge to life like scenarios. In order to improve your chance of success, it is good to read around the subject and practise past exam questions.
Nick Ryan is an experienced tutor for performance management subjects