by L. Gary Boomer

Is your firm managing technology with a caretaker or a true executive?

Your answer says a lot about your firm and whether technology is a strategic asset or simply overhead. Now is the time for firms to take notice and elevate their technology leaders to a place at the decision making table.

Has your firm formally accepted information technology as a part of its business strategy? If not, you are going to have difficulty competing in the future. Most will say that IT is strategic, but, if so, are they managing it strategically? IT must be managed in a professional manner with careful attention to people, priorities and performance.

This all sounds good, but what does it really mean to the local or regional CPA firm?

Hiring IT technical skills is no longer enough! Your firm needs the total package when it comes to the management of IT. The total package includes the following skills:

  • IT knowledge;
  • Financial management;
  • Leadership and management;
  • Business savvy; and,
  • Organization and cultural management.

If this sounds like the list of skills that you would look for in a managing partner or chief executive position, you are correct. Sadly, most managing partners and CEOs are lacking in the IT area, and often rely on technicians who don’t understand the firm’s business for technology advice and leadership. It does not work in corporate America or in professional service firms if IT is excluded from the boardroom.You are probably wondering where you might find these people and whether your firm can afford this type of person. The simple answer is that these people are developed, and chances are you cannot afford to be without one.
Chief information officers’ careers used to be defined by technical competence. Today, CIOs must be able to develop an IT strategy that everyone in the firm understands. The IT strategy must tie to the firm’s business objectives and strategies. Technology can be a distinct competitive advantage when firms view IT strategy as a process rather than as a project or event.

As a firm’s infrastructure becomes stronger and end-users’ skills grow, the entire firm spirals upward to a higher level. The opposite occurs without good leadership and a strategic technology plan.

The firm’s IT plan should contain three to seven objectives. Any more and most firms lack the resources and focus to succeed. When projects fail, firms lose confidence and commitment. There is no perfect plan, so develop a plan that is 80 percent complete and start execution. Remember the 80-20 rule. The last 20 percent often causes paralysis. Technology is dynamic and the top CIOs have a propensity to manage change. In fact, the key question to ask prospective CIOs is: How will you cope with and manage constant change?

The necessary skills are not learned through Microsoft certification or a two-day seminar. The skills are generally acquired through apprenticeships and coaching. Good role models are important in developing the necessary skills. Teamwork is also a necessity. Most of the CIOs in the accounting industry have experience within, as well as outside, the accounting profession. They have witnessed the good and bad, but most important, they have the confidence and leadership skills to develop teams of people who add value.

If you are the managing partner of a firm, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would I trust the CIO or our IT leader to run a department or the entire firm?
  • If not, what steps are necessary to get them to the management level?
  • Do I, as managing partner, really understand IT and how it can be used to drive certain areas of the firm?
  • What am I doing on a daily basis to ensure that my CIO or IT leader has, or is developing, the necessary skills to succeed?
  • Do my partners really get it when it comes to the importance of IT in our firm?
  • What would happen to our firm if we lost our IT leader?

These questions should show you the importance of developing an executive with IT skills rather than a technical person who lacks business savvy and the other necessary skills to lead your firm into the 21st century. You should also see the importance of succession and of developing multiple people.In many firms, it is time to upgrade in the technology area. Typically, most of the problem is with the firm rather than with any one person. Does your firm utilize job descriptions and game plans for your IT department? Do they have written personal and career development plans?
A change of strategy can take your firm to the next level.

L. Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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