Don't tell me the challenge without a strategy to overcome the obstacle. That is one of the differences between those who are accountable and those who avoid accountability.

From the perspective of someone who has been involved in firm management and technology over the past 25 years, IT leadership has become both increasingly important and difficult. The challenge is to take something relatively complex and rapidly changing (technology) and simplify it for the end user. This is happening at increasing speed, yet too many firms and specifically partners still look at technology as a cost center, rather than as a way to increase revenue, improve client services and ensure that their services and skills remain relevant. If your firm is experiencing commoditization and fee pressure in some of the traditional services (tax and accounting), you should take the time to read and discuss this article with your firm's leadership.

I am frequently asked what the one distinguishing factor between the leading firms and those that are struggling with the return on their technology investment is. The answer is simple -- leadership -- but elusive for too many firms. Firm leadership does not have to know how to build the watch, but they do need to know how to tell time. They also need to value planning, people and processes.

Too often the response to my question about firm technology is, "It's good and we are stable." That tells me that the firm probably is in the maintenance mode and not focused on new revenue opportunities and innovation.

Let's look at 10 obstacles and relevant strategies for chief information officers or IT leaders to get a seat at the management table.

1. A lack of leadership.

2. Attitude and lack of relevant IT knowledge.

3. Culture.

4. Complexity of IT.

5. Cost/investment.

6. Efficiency and production focus.

7. Integration and incumbent vendors.

8. An "or" rather than "and" strategy.

9. Behavioral versus technical.

10. The existing business model.

We will summarize each of these obstacles and offer strategies to overcome them.

1. Leadership. The higher the level of trust within a firm, the less time and expense it takes to implement strategic projects. Synergistic leadership is required from the CEO, CIO and sales leader in firms of all sizes.

In the past, most firms have selected a CEO or managing partner, then a director of tax and director of auditing and accounting. While leadership is needed from the technical areas, firm management must have a synergistic relationship with technology and business development (sales) in today's environment.

2. Attitude/lack of relevant IT knowledge. Most all accountants have an opinion about IT and often those with the strongest opinions have the least amount of knowledge about firm systems. Firms that view technology as a strategic asset, rather than overhead, have had a competitive advantage. Today, firm leaders must also be focused on revenue production and innovation.

3. Culture. Accountability at all levels is a must and it starts at the top of the firm. As Simon Sinek points out, "why" is more important than "how" or "what" you do. Do members of your firm have a sense of purpose? Passion? Leadership tells us "why," while authority tells us what goals to achieve. Most firms have grown because of passionate leadership with a "why" that people want to follow. Firms with only the "what" and "how" tend to stagnate.

4. Complexity. Technology is complex to the majority of people, yet they desire to operate as though it were simple, often ignoring security and privacy issues. Speed equals innovation times simplicity. The challenge is for leadership to simplify complexity, but the existing economic model of hours times dollars is in direct conflict with the simplification strategy. The customer determines value. Value is not determined by the effort or complexity.

5. Cost/investment. Recent and historical metrics show that firms are spending approximately $10 per chargeable hour and 6 percent of net revenue. This further equates to approximately $10,000 per full-time equivalent annually. My former firm was the first to implement a technology surcharge over 25 years ago. Today, most firms are ignoring this investment in pricing services, as well as in the costs of mergers and acquisitions.

6. Efficiency and production. Most firms originally invested in technology with the belief they would become more efficient and productive. For the most part this has already happened, and now the only way to continue to increase efficiency and production is through improved workflow and process improvement like Six Sigma, where errors are driven out of the process at the lowest possible level. Most accounting firms still drive out errors at the highest level (manager and partner) and then create inefficient loops in their processes. This is especially true in compliance services. The new services are in the areas of performance and strategy. These are higher-valued services (by the client) and require less time to provide value if the provider has accurate and timely accounting information. This happens when firms utilize the cloud and collaborative accounting systems. Speed up the cycle time on client projects and you will improve the margins.

7. Integration and incumbents. Integration has been the buzzword or Holy Grail for the past 20 years. In today's consumer-driven IT cloud-based environment, it is impossible for firms to operate with a single vendor. The future will require orchestration, rather than control, on the part of IT leaders to manage resources and multiple vendors. Integration is easier and occurs with less friction in the cloud than in client/server-based systems. This phenomenon is known as the cloud ecosystem.

8. An "or" rather than "and" strategy. A strategic challenge for firms is to decide what services to continue to offer, discontinue and develop. It is extremely difficult to discontinue a service in most firms. Tom Hood refers to this as the "Sow, Grow, Harvest and Plow" approach. Several criteria should determine your decisions:

  • Market trends;
  • Client needs and wants;
  • Segment profitability; and,
  • Available talent and resources.

While this strategy sounds simple from a business perspective, in reality there are generally political implications in most firms. It often takes outside counsel to make the tough decisions.
9. Behavioral versus technical. The higher you go, the more the issues are behavioral than technical. CIOs are expected to be chameleons and play multiple roles, often similar to the managing partner.

Some of those roles are:

  • Visionary leader;
  • Communicator;
  • Team builder;
  • Project manager;
  • Savvy business expert; and,
  • Savvy IT expert.

The challenge for many IT professionals is whether they desire to remain in a technical role or grow into a firm leader. If they want to be successful IT leaders, they must get outside of the firm and participate with peers to share successes and failures, as well as access expertise not available within the firm.
 

THE EXISTING BUSINESS MODEL

The profession's existing business model of hours times dollars is not sustainable. Therefore firms should focus on value and client-centric services. This requires improved communications upfront, as well as ongoing communications with a client service representative. Typically these conversations are more successful if conducted by someone other than the person delivering the service. Delivery partners often are too busy to take the time and fail to package and price services appropriately. Under the new model it is more of a team approach than that of a rugged individual.

The challenge is to operate as a multi-disciplinary firm (accounting, technology, human resources, training, legal, strategic planning, succession planning, CFO services, M&A, etc.) These collaborative services are much easier to offer today in a cloud-based environment where the information is real-time and accurate. Too many accountants have been spending time "cleaning up and correcting" accounting information during the busiest time of the year (after-the-fact type services), rather that providing high-level advisory services.

The old business model provided value by aggregating data from paper and digital systems, resulting in a very compressed busy season for compliance work. The new model leverages the digital aggregation of data into timely decision-making knowledge and focuses on planning, people and processes. It also spreads the work over the entire year and automates the compliance work in a way that firms can share resources among offices, and allows employees to work from any location at any time. Adequate bandwidth is the key and often employees have better bandwidth at home than in the office, where bandwidth is shared among many users.

 

CONCLUSION

Firms need technology leadership at the management table as they make important strategic decisions regarding industry trends, services, staffing, delivery processes and pricing. Firms and CIOs of the future must overcome these obstacles and increase value from the client's perspective.

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

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