[IMGCAP(1)]Technology is a strategic asset and firms should manage it as such, or they will quickly lose their competitive advantage. This is especially true for firms that have been growing through mergers and acquisitions. Often firms get caught in the trap of following the herd or focusing on just the hard costs of IT, rather than focusing on improved success and future-readiness. The only way to ensure continued success and future-readiness is to invest in planning, people and processes.
Firms are much like clients when it comes to technology and services. According to futurist and author Daniel Burrus, “Clients today don’t know what they want, because the things they most want are things they don’t yet know are possible. Give your clients the ability to do what they can’t currently do, but would want to, if they only knew it was possible.” Knowing the possibilities is the responsibility of IT and firm leadership.
Technology should be aligned with the firm’s digital objectives. This strategy goes beyond keeping the lights on (maintaining) and serves as a platform for developing innovative solutions, improving integration, and implementing faster, better and cheaper solutions. Outsourcing parts of IT often makes sense, but it is very difficult to outsource IT strategy and vision. A strategic approach is to think about the dangers, opportunities and successes to answer five key questions.
1. Does technology enable or limit your firm?
2. Are your core business partners (vendors) providing innovation and leadership?
3. Do you have a technology roadmap and budget?
4. How does technology enable you to provide increased value to clients?
5. How strong is the next generation of technology leadership and talent?
The following discussion is presented with each question to allow the reader to think at a strategic, rather than a tactical, level.
1. DOES TECHNOLOGY ENABLE OR LIMIT YOUR FIRM?
Conventional wisdom says that technology should enable your firm, yet reality shows that inefficient processes, lack of integration of applications, and duplication of data in multiple databases often result in reconciliation and low-quality data (integrity). Areas in which you can evaluate your current technology are:
- Remote access — do you have the ability to work from any place at any time?
- Mobile and dashboards — do you have the ability to access meaningful data from mobile devices?
- One-way workflow — do you have significant loops and long cycle times with projects?
- Client access and self-service — can clients interact seamlessly?
- Software updates — are they disruptive, centralized or local?
- Integration — does data flow seamlessly among applications?
- Automation — have you automated workflow, scheduling, financial reporting and compliance?
- Marketing and sales — do you have an integrated system that allows reporting from the practice management system and the general ledger?
- Sales — is your system designed for strategic selling? (Selling multiple services to strategic clients)
With the advent of cloud-based applications and new vendors coming into the accounting market, it appears their existing technology limits the majority of firms. Most of the core applications in the accounting profession were written in the client-server era and do not integrate as smoothly as possible, which leads us to the second question.
2. ARE YOUR CORE VENDORS PROVIDING INNOVATION AND LEADERSHIP?
According to a recent CompTIA survey, the actual percentage of companies using cloud computing has gone from 63 percent in 2014 to 45 percent in 2016. This is just the opposite of what most experts would assume regarding the cloud adoption path. Upon further review, these results are attributed to the clearer definition of cloud computing and “cloud washing” (on-premises software rebranded as cloud software). The basic cloud-washing practice includes a vendor that hosts an implementation of their existing packaged software and calls it cloud because they are maintaining it in a virtualized data center.
According to Seth Robinson, the analyst who conducted the research, “[Vendors] haven’t used something like CloudStack or OpenStack or built a proprietary cloud system to do the types of things that Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure or Google Cloud are doing.” Thus, many accounting firms are still using Citrix and running desktop applications, rather than browser-based applications, for their core services. Some refer to this as a hybrid system or operating in the fog, rather than the cloud.
Just like with smartphones and mobile devices, developers are writing applications that meet the needs of the end users, accountants included. This is providing innovative Web-based applications that automate complex as well as basic processes. Some of the more important ones are:
- Data import from clients into audit work papers and the preparation of financial statements;
- Independence and conflict management;
- Bill payment;
- Business analytics and dashboards;
- Payroll and performance management; and,
- Marketing and branding.
While this is a limited list, you should start to realize that many of these processes have been done manually and/or with spreadsheets in many firms. This approach is labor-intensive and time-consuming as well as high-risk, often due to processes and the integrity of the data. Furthermore, reporting is often delayed, rather than in real time, and not available on mobile devices.
Once you are in true cloud-based applications, the integration (with both internal and clients’ external applications) improves significantly and enables the business to automate more of their requirements and processes. This is especially important to firms that are facing talent shortages. It is also allowing firms to hire for more non-accounting skills such as finance, data analysis, technology and engineering.
Software development is truly global today and many of the applications are coming from the U.K., New Zealand and Australia, where they have been more focused on the development and adoption of cloud-based applications.
3. DO YOU HAVE A TECHNOLOGY ROADMAP AND BUDGET?
By now you should see the importance of IT vision and strategy. The technology plan and budget allows firms to prioritize and develop innovative strategies. Without taking time to think and plan, firms tend to react, spending most of their budget on maintenance (keeping the lights on) rather than innovation.
Firms are best served by having some outside input into the plan. The external resources can be provided by clients, vendors, consultants and peers. Don’t hesitate to include outsiders on your IT steering committee and participate in peer groups such as regular CIO Circles. From a financial perspective, we see similar levels of investment in the cloud, but the resources are being spent on processes, integration and innovation pertaining to improved client services and experiences, rather than engineering and network infrastructure. This also provides scalability and the ability to leverage resources (people and technology) among offices.
4. HOW DOES TECHNOLOGY ENABLE YOU TO PROVIDE INCREASED VALUE TO CLIENTS?
Most processes can and will be automated. Clients look to their CPA as either a technical advisor or a trusted business advisor. There is a significant difference in that trusted technical advisors primarily provide compliance services. As these services become more automated, how can CPAs avoid commoditization and remain relevant? The answer is to provide strategic, performance and compliance services that are packaged and priced for value, not by the hour. This requires a paradigm shift for most CPAs who have been taught value is created by time and labor.
I encourage firms to think differently. The most important changes in thinking are:
- Value can be added by all members of the team, not just CPAs and accountants. The future of services is a team sport, not just for rugged individuals.
- Play above the line by offering performance and strategic services in addition to compliance services.
- Focus on adding value and the client experience.
- Think of your firm as a small business, rather than a CPA firm. There are many cloud-based applications currently available that will improve performance and add value to the clients.
- Price for value, not for time. This will allow you to focus more on cycle time and real-time knowledge and wisdom.
- Filter out clients and services that may not be profitable. This provides time for value-added services to your best clients.
5. HOW STRONG IS THE NEXT GENERATION OF TECHNOLOGY LEADERSHIP AND TALENT?
IT leadership and talent are important whether you choose to outsource or develop talent internally. Sourcing in the short term may be a viable strategy, but for the long term, it is risky due to the speed at which disruptive technology is entering the market. Independence in perspective and knowledge of what is happening in other professions and firms is also important. Many of the existing vendors are cloud washing or skating to where the puck has been, not where it will be.
The role of the CIO has changed and will continue to change. It is now more like an orchestra leader who manages the relationships with business partners, ensures integration, provides vision, and has a seat at the management table to ensure integration of the IT roadmap with the firm’s strategic plan. Firm CEOs should adopt the role of venture capitalist, who understands the needs of the marketplace, secures funding, and works with the CIO on the collaborative roadmap.
There are many great CIOs in the profession, but not enough that have both the technology knowledge and the vision and business savvy. Firms also must compete in salary and career advancement opportunities for IT professionals and executives, or they will continue to develop talent that leaves the profession for better opportunities.
1. Involve your CIO and IT professionals in a peer network.
2. Ensure your technology roadmap and budget integrates with your strategic plan.
3. Meet with key business partners.
4. Make sure your mindset, skill set and tool set are aligned.
5. Utilize external as well as internal resources.
This is about progress and not perfection. Perfection is the enemy of firm success and future-readiness, as it can lead to missed opportunities and overanalysis. Progress will always keep your firm moving forward on the road to success.
L. Gary Boomer, CPA, CITP, CGMA, is the visionary and strategist at Boomer Consulting Inc., in Manhattan, Kansas.
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