Operational Case Study (OCS) Key Topics

by Thomas Newman

These OCS Key Topics anticipate what kinds of questions will come up in the Operational Case Study exam.


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Many students approach their first case study with trepidation. They don't know what to expect or how best to prepare for this exam. A good starting point is to review past exam papers to highlight the key topics that get tested. Are all subjects (E1, F1 and P1) equally represented or not? Are there certain topics within the three subjects that the examiners like to focus on? Are there other topics that examiners rarely test?

Between the start of 2015 when the case study exams were launched, and February 2018, there have been 13 case study exam sittings with 65 exam variants presented by CIMA (there are 5 exam variants per exam window). For each exam window and exam variant you can find very useful post-exam commentaries by the CIMA examiners that comment on the types of issues that were tested and how students performed. Of course, it takes a lot of work to review all of these guides and to draw meaningful conclusions. Luckily, VIVA Financial Tuition has been busy doing in-depth analysis of all past exams and we can highlight some really interesting tendencies.

Are all subjects (E1, F1, P1) equally represented?

Somewhat surprisingly, no they are not. At the objective level examiners want students to demonstrate technical proficiency whereas at later levels (management and strategic) there is more of an emphasis on business skills and the softer skills of leadership and people. P1 topics have accounted for 48% of the total marks awarded in all case studies to date. The tendency for P1 to represent the majority of the marks has actually increased over 2017  (51% of total marks over 2017) and 2018 (53% of total marks in Feb18), so it's wise to be especially well prepared on P1 topics going into the exam.

What about E1 and F1? E1 has accounted for 27% of total marks awarded while F1 topics make up the other 25% of marks awarded between February 2015 and February 2018. This weighting holds pretty steadily across all 13 exam sittings to date.

Are there Certain Topics the Examiners Focus On?

There are 14 topics spanning the 3 objective level subjects of E1, F1 and P1. Here's a reminder of just what those topics are with the weighting they are assigned within each subject:

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A review of all past case study papers to date reveals a finding of real importance to CIMA students - just 2 topics have accounted for over 36% of all marks awarded over the 13 exam sittings to date! Those two absolutely crucial topics are:

• P1: A. Cost Accounting Systems (this topic has accounted for 23% of all marks awarded in case studies to date)
• F1: B. Financial Accounting and Reporting (13% of all marks awarded in case studies)

If we extend the analysis we can see that 6 topics make up 71% of all marks awarded to date. So, adding to topic A from P1 and topic B from F1 which we highlighted above the top 6 topics are rounded out by adding:

• F1: C. Management of Working Capital, Cash and Sources of Short-term Finance (10% of all marks awarded)
 P1: C. Short-term Decision Making (9% of all marks awarded)
• P1: D. Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty (8% of all marks awarded) 
• P1: B. Budgeting (8% of all marks awarded)

Knowing that there are certain topics that examiners assign more value to gives you a great start as you can double your efforts in these key areas to ensure better exam performance. I would add one small caveat - in 2017, examiners have put more focus on topic B from P1 (Budgeting) with it accounting for 10% of total marks awarded in the 2017 case study sittings. In 2015, budgeting accounted for just 4% of total marks so it seems there has been a shift recently on the part of the examiners.

Are there Topics that Rarely Appear?

Yes, there are certain topics that appear very seldom. In fact, 4 of the 14 operational topics have accounted for a mere 4.7% of all marks awarded in case study exams to date. They are as follows:

• F1: A. Regulatory Environment for Financial Reporting and Corporate Governance (0.7% of all marks awarded)
• F1: D. Fundamentals of Business Taxation (1.1% of all marks awarded)
• E1: B. Managing the Finance Function (1.4% of all marks awarded)
• E1: C. Managing Technology and Information (1.5% of all marks awarded)

The very low incidence of topics A and D from F1 explains the fact that F1 topics make up only 25% of total marks in case study exams in spite of the fact that topics B and C from that subject are amongst the topics most regularly examined. Any student reviewing theory, accounting standards and calculations from F1 should be focusing the majority of his/her efforts on financial accounting and reporting and management of working capital, cash and short-term finance.

The above analysis indicates a clear path for the CIMA student to follow when it comes to review of E1, F1 and P1 topics. It's vitally important that you're very comfortable with all areas of P1 as this is the subject that is most heavily weighted in the objective case study. For F1, you can spend much less time covering taxation and the regulatory environment and put special focus on topic B in particular making sure to give attention also to review of topic C. For E1 you can skim topics B and C while making sure to spend most time on topic F. After you have covered the human resources section you can finish off your review by covering A, D and E in some depth (though not as thoroughly as for topic F).

Please be aware that absolutely anything can and does come up in these exams and everything has been tested over all 8 sittings of the case study to date. Therefore, your revision needs to cover all topics! However, the above article shows there are topics you can give more attention to and less attention to.

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