In with the High-Tech Crowd

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CPA activists are spreading the news: Technology needs to be a professional core competency.

by Richard McCausland

Chris Fraser has a personal credo: "If I don't like something, I want to get involved with changing it." For the last couple of years, as a member of the Florida Institute of CPAs, he's been putting in a lot of extracurricular hours getting the word out to his state colleagues that "Technology is a great enabler of small and medium-sized companies," including accounting practices.

Partner Insights

Like a lot of folks his age, Fraser, 34, loves technology. "I'm always trying to keep up with the latest and greatest," he says. "There are so many great tools out there, and they're so accessible." He's no less enthusiastic about accounting. "I've always thought of accounting as the language of business," giving the CPA valuable insight into a client's day-to-day operations, sales and marketing, the financial department of course, and even which technology is employed internally. "Talk about being on top of all aspects of a business," he says with professional pride.

As an IBM and Arthur Andersen alumnus and currently as director of consulting services for the St. Petersburg-based accounting firm of Fraser, Culbreth (his dad is managing partner), Fraser fortunately has been able to pursue his twin passions. In his present job, he conducts IT reviews for clients (including hardware and software recommendations), handles networking design and analysis, develops custom database applications-and maintains the internal systems at Fraser, Culbreth as well.

Fraser's a pretty happy camper, which is why he's all the more amazed that so many of his accounting colleagues haven't embraced technology with equal fervor. But in keeping with his personal credo, he's out to fill that "void."

Fraser is a founding member and vice chair of the FICPA E-Commerce Section, comprising members with an interest in technology-related issues who can consult with each other via an online discussion board. He's also a member of the Young CPA group, recently upgraded from a task force to full committee status, and which conducts a high school outreach program to disseminate information about the accounting profession.

From the AICPA Vision Statement

Listed under Core Services:
Technology Services
"CPAs provide services that leverage technology to improve objectives and decision-making including business application processes, system integrity, knowledge management, system security and integration of new business processes and practices."

Listed under Core Competencies:
Technology Adept
"CPAs are able to utilize and leverage technology in ways that add value to clients, customers and employers."

A key component of that message is that, as outlined by the American Institute of CPAs' Vision Statement, technology is both a professional core competency and a core service (see sidebar, this page). "That's very important, especially to younger CPAs and to students, since they really 'get' technology because they've grown up with it," explains Fraser.

To varying degrees, state societies are courting both younger and potential CPAs. For example, to underscore its commitment to student outreach, the New York State Society of CPAs' Emerging Technologies Committee has begun enlisting student members. "That has worked very well," says Bruce Nearon, past chair of the committee and director of IT security audit for the Cohn Consulting Group, in Roseland, N.J. "The students have a lot to offer us since they are more open to trying new technologies. And they have all been very actively involved in the committee's business."

Over on the West Coast, David Cieslak, a past chair of the California Technology Committee and principal with Information Technology Group in Encino, has visited a half-dozen local high schools in recent months, presenting a slide show demonstrating what a CPA does. He notes, "You naturally dovetail to, 'It's much more than green eyeshades and crunching numbers.' Technology definitely factors into that presentation."

Online list serve forums-essentially email discussion groups-are proving particularly popular vehicles for organizing technology-focused cliques.

California has probably the best-trafficked list serve among the various state CPA societies. Its technology-centric RAMsession, a Yahoo email group service, fields a dozen or more messages a day touching on issues far and wide: how to set up streaming video or fix a client's time-losing computer clock, or giving a heads-up on the Re:Movie virus, or recommending a Microsoft online white paper detailing appropriate password policies.

"It's not quite as good as [dealing] face to face, but it's not bad either," says Susan Bradley, CITP, a partner with Fresno-based Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn & Braun, and chair of the society's Technology Committee. "Typically, you find that someone else has solved that problem before. And there's an attitude of, 'We don't go after the same clients, so if we swap information, everyone wins'."

List serve participants not only get immediate solutions to their problems, according to Bradley. "We're building our own communities" of like-minded IT advocates, she states. "Once we do meet face to face"-whether at a chapter meeting, or the annual California Accounting & Business Show, or the AICPA Tech Show-"that communication level immediately kicks in."

That said, it's worth noting that other technology activists are finding that list serves have their limitations.

List Serve Etiquette

• Include an electronic signature for each posting (name, affiliation, and contact information) in case one of the members of the list serve would like to contact you directly.
• Use a specific and concise topic for the subject line.
• Reply to the entire list serve if everyone will benefit from the information.
• If you would like to thank someone for his or her response, please send your message directly to that person, not the entire list.
• Be respectful of the opinions of others.
• Do not use offensive language.

Source: Arizona Society of CPAs Web site

The Arizona Society has an "extremely successful" tax-focused list serve-"maybe ten postings a day"-but a much less successful technology list serve, notes president Cindie Hubiak. She hopes to improve the latter, but notes, "We have a number of members say they are overwhelmed by email."

Member Edward Zollars, a partner with Henricks, Martin, Thomas & Zollars in Phoenix, has been chatting online since serving as moderator of the AICPA Accountants Forum on CompuServe in the mid-1990s. He explains, "Tax seems to generate much more interest than anything else because there are always current developments and there's a wide amount of shared experience." If a member has a question about how subdividing a parcel of real estate might impact the capital gain, "Everybody feels they're going to hit this issue, therefore you can build a discussion."

Technology hasn't got that same level of shared experience, he has found. If a member asks a question about Lacerte or ProSystem fx Tax, that's "absolutely irrelevant" to others on the list serve who don't use those packages.

In any event, whatever technology programs they have in place, state CPA societies are likely to find the going rough in terms of organizing a widespread community of IT users-much less a community of fans.

After 14 years of lecturing to state societies, "As best as I can tell, 95 percent of CPAs don't attend technology CPE," says Carlton Collins, an industry analyst who heads Accounting Software Advisor out of Atlanta. "Most CPAs are afraid if they attend, they might just have to buy some new product-which is true, because the stuff they're using is probably way too old and needs to be upgraded."

With that in mind, the Georgia Society of CPAs has just formed a monthly Technology Leadership Summit, hosted by Collins, The format includes an hour presentation, for one CPE credit, followed by a 30-minute social.

Collins is serious about pitching each session to technology "leaders," that fraction of the membership whose interest extends beyond the next QuickBooks version or how to install email. "We're trying to focus it on higher-end products and services," such as WiFi (wireless fidelity) hardware compatibility, he notes.

Anything But Boring

But let's get back to Fraser, a credentialed tekkie. He recalls that when attending the University of Florida, "it could be almost embarrassing" to disclose he was an accounting major, since the immediate response too often was: "Gee, that sounds boring." For Fraser, it was anything but. He was taking computer courses along with his accounting classes. "Knowing both is a valuable skill," positioning the CPA in the more expansive role of business advisor.

"We don't have to work for just audit clients; there are lots of clients who need our help," states Fraser.

A Certified IT Professional, he appreciates the influence of role models. There's his father, Wayne "Skipp" Fraser, of course, a past president of the FICPA. There's also Stam Stathis, partner with CPA Associates and a member of the FICPA board of governors, who has functioned as an "informal mentor." The two had dinner at an AICPA Tech Show in Atlanta a few years back, and shortly afterward, "he contacted me to see if I might be interested in getting involved" with the emerging E-Commerce Section.

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