Sage is accounting software aimed primarily at SMEs. For the accountants or small business owners who use its software, Sage has relatively recently brought out a set of certifications, as Gary Flood explains.

Pop music has The Beatles, consumer electronics has its Sony, the PC has Microsoft - and accounting software has its Sage. In other words, all businesses have their dominant, though not of course sole, player, and when it comes to bean counting the Gateshead-based outfit is pretty much top dog.

Sage is surely justified to call itself a leading supplier of business management software and services, working with nearly six million customers worldwide (750,000 organisations use its stuff in this country alone, for instance), supplying them with packages designed to help manage their general ledger and other core financial dealings. Leading the charge here is Sage Instant Accounts and what was Sage Line 50, though the 'Line' has been quietly dropped.

Undoubtedly, the kind of customer who uses Sage is not the same one who would take on an enterprise business engine like, for instance, Oracle Financials: Sage is very much an SME proposition, though of course it likes to say it is a relevant mid-sized organisation option too.

The company is also doing quite nicely as regards its own bottom line: for the half-year ending this March it saw sales up nine per cent to just over £640m, and its last full year last September saw the firm hit over £1bn in global revenue. That comes mostly from its accounts software lines: Sage has diversified somewhat, into things like healthcare and construction, but these businesses are marginal compared to the bread-and-butter business - just under half Sage's revenues come from accounting software, its original product line, though it is very strong in the UK for its customer relationship management line.

Third party estimates give the firm around 60 per cent of the total UK accounting and payroll software market share. Sage is one of those rare British world beaters in IT, with its roots going back to its founding in Gateshead in 1981, and being the only UK technology firm on the FTSE 100.

As such, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the company has only relatively recently compiled a full certification story. 'This has been overwhelmingly down to customer demand,' said Andrea Kew, commercial development manager for Sage Training. That's not to say that Sage hadn't been providing training - any Sage user will be familiar with its 'workbooks' self-study user guides. What is new is a commitment to offer a structured way to help demonstrate competence in using Sage products to third parties.

So now available are three main schemes, for Instant and 50 and also the Payroll packages, again, very popular with smaller firms. The Instant scheme is at the moment just a general qualification (ie it has no entry-level or expert grades), while the Sage 50 Accounts has three levels and Payroll two. All Sage Certifications are valid for two years after they are awarded.

What would an employer know if they get, say, an applicant for a credit control position say they had Sage qualifications on a CV? The kind of skills being tested in the Instant Accounts area start at things any small businessman will know and, er, love, like dealing with the VAT form, raising and paying customer invoices and running basic financial reports.

With Sage 50, a Level 1 pass means you can work with slightly more complicated things like journals and supplier payments - at Level 3, the candidate is expected to be able to create and run full purchase orders, perform correct discounting and stock taking, even be unfazed by working with foreign currency based transactions.

So what is the profile of the person behind that CV going to be? They are accountants, not IT people, and you don't enrol on an off-site training course to get these qualifications. That's because, as both Andrea Kew and Dave Snow, academic director at home study training specialist The Home Learning College confirm, the vast majority of people looking to get Sage certifications are going to be working on this remotely, usually in their own time.

Indeed, Snow says: 'A lot of demand comes from people looking to get expertise in this area to not just firm up what they need to know to work in finance in small businesses, they also want to change careers.' Interestingly, the company lists a Sage book-keeping course as its most poplar item enrolment-wise.

Not wanting to change career but wanting to improve his basic accounting software skills is self-employed accountant John Neil Stroud. 'I would definitely recommend this system as the training material is very good and I have already done a couple of qualifications this year,' he says.

Sage is undoubtedly committed to certification. It has made its certification process affordable (£50 plus VAT to take the one hour online exam per qualification) and easy to start, offering a user-driven 'diagnostic test' as a way to get started. Whether or not its claim that having a, for instance, Sage 50 Level 2 pass under your belt will help you get a job in the current downturn is harder to prove.

However, it cannot be denied that any small business owner or accountant helping such a class of organisation could do a lot worse than take that online quiz and see if they need a more formal grounding in use of this extremely popular piece of number-crunching software.

The Home Learning College website