Frequently I am asked, "What IT projects produce the greatest ROI?" While the intent of the question may be hidden, the answer is simply that there are firm projects where technology is a component or the accelerator. The champion and leader normally determine success. I have also learned from experience that the person asking for an ROI analysis is often motivated to derail the project.

The real answer to the question comes from the planning and budgeting process that should integrate with the firm's strategic plan. If the firm doesn't have a current strategic plan, it is difficult to develop an IT plan and strategy. Based upon what we are seeing in progressive firms, the following projects are high priority:

1. Process definition and improvement;

2. Customer relationship management;

3. Workflow; and,

4. Project management.

At first look, you may correctly determine that these are firm projects that have a technology component that can provide a positive impact as firms move to the cloud and become more collaborative in servicing client needs and wants. Many of you may have other projects that are easier and less expensive to implement, such as an e-mail upgrade, but the above areas are important for long-term growth and impact everyone in the firm. The first step is not a search for software, but rather a definition of processes and identifying the project champion. We generally recommend that the champion come from the manager level.

The Six Sigma approach -- define, measure, analyze, improve and control -- is proven and works well in a CPA firm. We use it internally, and many firms report a significant return on bringing in consultants to assist with the process. Kurt Godel (1906-1978), the Austrian logician and mathematician, said that to understand a system you are in, you must get out of the system. I first experienced Six Sigma in the accounting profession in India as the tax preparation outsourcers attempted to drive errors out of the process at the lowest possible level. In the U.S., firms tend to drive the errors out of the process at a high level (review by manager or partner). Out of this experience has come workflow software, as well as scan-and-populate applications for tax preparation. All of these applications have improved over the past 10 years.

The big question for many CPAs is what is our process and what system do we use? Most firms have multiple applications that claim to provide workflow and project management, but many lack integration and real-time capabilities. There are many processes in a CPA firm, but some with the potential for a high return are:

  • Tax return preparation;
  • Pricing, billing and collection;
  • Sales process;
  • Financial statement preparation;
  • Accounts payable, bill payment and collections; and,
  • Digital signatures.

Think ... one-way workflow improves efficiency and cycle times. The resistance in firms often comes from the outdated practice of sending work in a backward loop after review for changes, with the primary reason given as training. There are far more efficient methods of training, and today's systems offer communication among team members.
A far bigger problem in many firms is that the review portion of the process is often a stress point in the pipeline and work sits in the pipeline waiting for review. Two good practices that came out of India was the policy that returns must be reviewed within X hours and each preparer is given a grade on the return. This identifies training requirements and holds preparers accountable.

All of these projects involve workflow and project management. The challenge is to get existing systems to integrate and eliminate much of the redundant data within a firm. Firms spend a significant amount of time and resources entering, reconciling and protecting duplicate data in multiple software applications. As firms move toward the cloud, the friction is reduced and the data is accessible from any device on a real-time basis.

CRM is on many firm's lists, and is generally driven by rainmaker partners and the marketing and sales department. Without first defining the sales process and determining priorities, most CRM projects fail. Success can come quickly and easily with the right attitude and simply getting partners and managers to enter opportunities into the system. Once this happens, a pipeline is developed that provides accountability and market segment information. Another challenge is to convert existing practice management systems into CRM, project management and workflow systems. I have not seen this work except with Web-based applications where there is less friction and open architecture.

An easy win for firms is in the area of internal accounting and back-office document management. Large corporations have utilized ACH payments, while most CPA firms utilize credit cards and checks. Systems are available and affordable that allow you to reduce the cycle time for collections, bill payment and engagement letters. They do require change and often there will be resistance. The Six Sigma process will serve you well in these projects.

I encourage you to move forward with digital signatures, as I have a feeling it won't be long before the Internal Revenue Service will accept them on IRS Form 8879, providing a great bonus to clients and the firm during the busiest times of the year. For now, getting engagement letters and internal documents signed is enough to justify the change.

If your firm is experiencing some of these challenges, the best approach is to start with a plan and budget that defines priorities, champions, due dates and training requirements. The tendency is to address these challenges based upon existing technology, rather than on the future and the firm's strategic plan. As you develop your strategies, utilize "10 X" thinking. Ask the question, if our firm was 10 X larger, what would we do? According the Jim Collins in Great by Choice, this requires discipline, paranoia and creativity. It is much easier to think 10 times than 10 percent.

There is more excitement and people see the need for change. The ROI on technology is much greater for innovative projects than for maintenance of existing systems.

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

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