Over the past 15 years, the content, priorities and people developing the strategies and sense of urgency of an IT strategic plan have changed. In fact, if your firm’s IT plan doesn’t look and resemble your strategic plan and vision, you should ask why they are not in alignment. Generally speaking, strategic and IT plans lack alignment when people fail to communicate, document results and hold each other accountable for execution. Sadly this alignment has not happened in many shared services organizations because IT has been valued and managed as overhead, rather than as a strategic asset.
The chief information officer’s role has changed to focus on revenue and innovation. Leaders of top firms realize that they have a strategic advantage if their CIO is at the table and their strategic IT plan integrates with the firm’s vision and strategic plan. For several years, we have said that planning times people times processes equals peak performance, and technology is the accelerator. To make all of this work requires the right leadership and governance. In this article, I want to discuss five categories that bring the plan to life and make it executable. They are:
- Leadership and governance;
- Talent development;
- The scalable platform and ecosystem;
- Business development; and,
- Return on investment.
Let’s take a quick look at the five categories that differentiate the best firms from the rest.
LEADERSHIP AND GOVERNANCE
Throughout my career, this has been the primary differentiator between the leaders and the followers. Leadership at all levels is essential. In fact, there is a leadership crisis in the accounting profession at all levels. Governance needs to be based on a more entrepreneurial and corporate model, rather than the partnership and slow-decision-making model. More leaders are needed who can manage risk and change with a sense of urgency. Clients are asking for services that are focused on insight and the future, rather than the past. Without strong leadership, procrastination and risk avoidance will put the firm at a disadvantage for remaining successful and future ready.
Firms can attract talent with current technology and competitive compensation. In order to retain top talent, they must have programs to develop their team, in order to ensure talent remains employable, and to provide flexibility in work schedules and career advancements. Another key area is to equip the team with efficient processes that leverage technology. Mobile devices and applications allow employees to eliminate significant travel time and improve collaboration with clients and peers.
THE SCALABLE PLATFORM
Scalability is advantageous to firms that are growing organically, as well as those that are growing through mergers. The challenge many of the larger mergers face is the lack of application and hardware standards. In the short term, this may not impact profitability; in fact, it may maximize profits. But in the long term, standards are more scalable and cost less to support. Security and business continuity are all-important necessities, but are not enough to differentiate firms in a competitive environment. New services and innovation are required.
The profession is being disrupted by multiple sources: software, mobile hardware, data storage in the cloud, real-time data access from multiple data sources such as banks, brokerage and insurance companies. Your firm and clients are not exempt. Firms should be prepared to change in order to meet your clients’ wants as well as their needs.
IT is being asked to be innovative and supportive of new service opportunities, rather than simply maintaining the existing systems. The new services are more in the performance (CFO) and strategic (planning) areas and tend to have higher margins than the traditional tax and accounting services. Many firms are facing difficult economic decisions. Do they filter out less profitable clients in order to focus on more-profitable advisory services, or do they continue to stick with their traditional services that are being commoditized?
An alternative is to do both by packaging and pricing traditional services with new performance and strategic advisory services. The challenge seems to be in pricing and changing processes. The new multiple-service models become a team sport where multiple people are involved in servicing the client. It often requires giving up firm independence and becoming an advocate of the client. Services are packaged and priced on value, rather than hourly rates. Conversations and negotiations must occur in advance, rather than during the work or after it is completed. This calls for expanded internal capacity beyond time and billing. It includes project management and client resource management.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
The firm’s technology strategy depends upon the firm’s vision. Your firm’s vision will depend upon a number of factors:
- Existing talent;
- Existing clients and niche markets;
- Client demand for performance and strategic services;
- Ability to sustain profitability of existing services; and,
- New disruptive technology.
A question you must ask is, “Is your business model built to support or reject investment in technology?” A business model built upon selling hours really isn’t built to support the investment in technology. A model built upon efficiency, quality service and value does support an investment in technology. Perhaps your firm needs to clarify its business model, as well as to define the return on investment based upon the above criteria.
As you can see, a solid strategic IT plan should align with your firm’s vision and strategic plan. If it does, your firm will be more successful and ready for the future regardless of the coming changes in technology, increased regulation and competition for talent. The lead dog sees and has more opportunities than the rest of the pack.
L. Gary Boomer, CPA, CGMA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
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