Let's Start With End In Mind
If you work on projects and get paid for that work, someone is paying for you. That can be a direct customer if you're working on a external project. Or it can be the firms customers, buying a product or service which provides the money to pay you. No matter, someone pays for you to do what you do best.
Project Accounting is a subset of Finance Accounting, Both Are Important to the Project Manager
As a person working on a project, you may not care about Project Accounting or Finanical Accounting. But it's important to know where your pay check comes from, and it's not the Bank of America.
Project Accounting, sometimes called job cost accounting, creates data that tracks the financial performance of projects. Project Accounting enables the firm providing project resources (labor and material) to monitor the progress of their projects from a financial point of view. This is separate from standard organizational accounting for departments, divisions or the firm.
There are several data values used in project accounting. The project manager and the business manager(s) funding the project expect a certain level of profitability to be maintained in each function of the organization workiing on the project. The cost associated with delivering the project is Budgeted by the firm - usually before the customer of the project receives an invoice for the work and sends Funds in the form of real money. Budget is not dead presidents. Budget is an authorization to spend dead presidents, but you can't take your budget to Star Bucks and buy a Vente Latte.
For external projects the separation of internal costs - both direct and indirect - is many times done by finance. Usually the project costs are wrapped or grossed up for billing purposes to the customer. For internal projects, the fringe, labor overhead, material overhead, and G&A costs are not usually recorded directly to the project, but recorded in the Project Ledger as the wrap rate for your labor. Fringe, labor overhead, material overhead, G&A and other indirects are paid with actual funds - dead presidents - so those costs can be recorded outside the project, since they are not material to the project's performance if managed properly. We see all the time, when those indirect costs get out of hand the firm itself reduces its profit and they come looking for savings from your project.
An important concept of project cost accounting is the ability to provide visibility to targeted revenue against the actual revenue, and the estimated costs to produce that revenue against actual cost to produce that revenue. Many firms separate these two items - revenue and costs. The Project Manager focuses on the cost side - direct labor, materials, services, etc. And the Financial Accounting department focuses the revenue forecast and actuals. Since those direct labor, materials, and services - whether internal or external - have to be paid in real money, someone in Accounts Payable needs to know how much will be coming due in the next period.
This By The Way is the role of Estimating. How much labor will be needed to produce the planned outcomes of the project next quarter, next release, or the next anything? Fixed labor pool? Simply add up the FTE (Full Time Equivalents), multiply by the Fully Burdened labor rate and send that to accounting. But of course that means with a fixed labor pool, you'll need to know what your capacity for work is. Have a fixed commitment to deliver some value? Then you'll need to know how many FTE's that takes. Either way you'll need an estimate for those outside your project paying the bills.
What Does Project Accounting Do Best?
Project cost accounting records the costs associated with a particular project or job. Project accounting collects all cost - invoices, time cards, other direct project charges - and assures they are recorded in the proper charge account. These charges can be direct billed to the customer, or assigned to a Budget Item in the project cost baseline, or recorded as non-billable. When costs are non-billable, they are also considered non-recoverable and are usually captured in some overhead account. It's the cost of business.
It's a simple matter of balancing the books. Money In minus Money Out = Retained Earnings (money left over). It's of course more complex than this, but this will do for now.
This must balance...
All Income in the form of Accounts Receivable = All Outgo in the form of payments in "real money"
For project accounting to add value, care is needed to record and track every project cost. This by the way is one primary role of the Work Breakdown Structure. The WBS defines the budget and captures the cost of each project element. On the project side expenses are represented by direct labor (this is why time cards are used on many external contracts), invoices submitted properly for non-labor project costs.
One important issue in project accounting is who carries the overhead?
Project managers are usually not aware - at least directly - of the overhead, fringe, and other indirect costs to their projects. In some domains these costs are wrapped in a multiplier to the direct labor and recorded on the Project Balance sheet without any detail. This Wrap Rate value is important to the project manager, since this cost is subtracted from the revenue generated from the external customer. For internal projects, this wrapped cost is part of the ROI calculation for the cost of delivering the value from the project to the internal business customer.
In the end someone has to pay the electric bill, those free lunches for the project team, those Star Buck cards we hand out for hard work, and the spot award checks for other actions of the team. Those really nice 1080P monitors sitting on the engineers desks? Someone has to pay for those. The Aeron chairs? Someone has to pay. In the end someone has to pay.
Our daughter (now grown an gone) came home one day from her High School Economics class and announced, Dad we learned today there is no such thing as free. Yep, dear, welcome to the real world. People need to know what the real cost is. When they say free checking, someone is paying for that, probably you.
On projects, all that infrastructure you enjoy - laptops, lunchroom, parking, etc. is paid for by someone. If not directly, than indirectly. That's accounted for in the Financial Accounting System, the one the CFO is interested in. As a project manager you may or may not know about the wrap rate or even care about the wrap rate. But those who pay you do. And since they do, you may want to have some concern about the wrap rate as well. Fringe benefits, labor overhead, material overhead, G&A, etc. are real costs and impact that ellusive bottom line for your project and your firm.
So In the End
If you work on projects and are not concerned with the wrap rate either directly or indirectly (a pun for all us project planning and controls geeks), then you're probably direct labor. Wonderful direct labor, hired for your irreplaceable skills, but accounted for as labor all the same. Recorded on the books by your direct rate (annual or hourly), the fringe, overhead and other indirects.
So if you don't care for the Overhead discussion, or don't want to perform your role as a project manager using Overhead, just remember, those who pay you do care. And since they care, you may want to care, or at least pretend you care, you're job may depend on it.