The plan to create a shared member network between the American Institute of CPAs and state CPA societies was built on good intentions, but CPAs themselves shouldn't spend too much time mourning the announcement that work on the state society component of the project is being halted indefinitely.
After more than six years of championing the project, J. Clarke Price, chairman of Shared Services LLC, cried "Uncle" last week, and notified state society chief executives that the network project was being shelved. Price, who is also the chief executive and president of the Ohio State Society of CPAs, has been running a beta site for the past two years that continues to cause a number of problems in his society's day-to-day operations. Whether or not Ohio's CPA members have noticed the difference, the end result is that the society is not delivering customer service the way they once did.
That there's money to be made in a shared database is clear. Jointly owned by the AICPA and the State Society Network Inc. (the nonprofit comprising societies in the 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico), the SSLLC was formed in 2000 with the goal of allowing CPA members to access membership updates and discount offers though the AICPA Web portal, CPA2Biz.com. While an exact business model was never publicly mapped out, societies would have received a fee for each member's info contributed into the system and, eventually, a percentage of profits made from marketing deals.
Demand for increasingly sophisticated association applications has already changed the software landscape since SSLLC was created. Microsoft has continued to make a strong move into the arena with their .Net platform, and more than a dozen competing products are already available in the marketplace.
But now, with the dust settling on the SSLLC initiative, there are no clear winners or losers. At the moment, it stands as nothing more than a missed business opportunity for the AICPA, which underwrote the cost for the Oracle platform and the work to fine-tune the software. But the national group is continuing to work with Oracle, and, without the real-time data entry needs of the state societies, will be able to utilize a number of advances within their own membership rolls.
Business will go on as usual at the state societies, several of which had balked at the prospect of giving up the membership information that is their lifeblood. A centralized database would have been a powerful tool, but many societies already have sophisticated systems to generate reports, mailings and mass e-mail lists. (More than half of the country's societies use Custom Data Systems' Association Management 4, including Ohio, which retained its AM4 license throughout the failed development process.)
Price hasn't ruled out revisiting the project in the future, and said that, in hindsight, one of the few things he would have insisted on was that the shared database remove much of its capabilities for "terminal uniqueness" -- forcing state societies to standardize everything from terminology on up, and hopefully realize a working platform.
"I think if we had been more forceful in giving up that ability to keep so much unique to a society, we could really have let a truly best-of-breed product unfold," Price told me in a telephone interview. "We'd have been able to know a lot more about the member and what information we should be pushing to that member."
There has to be a reason for CPAs to belong to individual state societies, in addition to the larger umbrella of the AICPA. A one-stop Web site could have marked the beginning of the end of that individualization. Collectively streamlining information for education or marketing purposes was surely a great business opportunity, and it's a proposition that still makes a lot of business sense. But the CPA who likes his local society the way it is should rest easy that things will be staying unique for a bit longer.
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