The role of the IT professional is changing with the cloud and the number of vendor relationships that firms must manage. IT in CPA firms has always been complex due to the number of applications and the diversity of the business processes. However, in today's environment, with mobile devices, remote access, workflow tracking, and self-service portals, firms often have anywhere from 10 to 25 vendors that they deal with, and 40-50 applications.

I encourage you to take a moment and write down all the vendors that your firm utilizes. At the risk of leaving out significant vendors, I will provide a list to assist you as well as prove my point. (See "Juggling relationships," at right.)

Many of these vendors offer multiple applications to further compound the complexity of the issue and demonstrate how the role of the IT leader must now be to orchestrate all of the firm's business partners into an integrated system that meets the needs of the firm and its clients.

One advantage of the cloud is the fact that integration among applications is much easier and better than in the client-server world. There simply is less friction in the cloud, and applications integrate at a much higher level.

There are many disconnects in the accounting profession when it comes to technology; the primary ones are:

1. The sales process often is outside the scope of the IT leader at a departmental level, yet the same IT leader is responsible for integration.

2. Technology takes a long time to implement, yet the tool set is constantly changing. The speed of change is also increasing.

3. The tools are expensive, yet have a high defect rate. This is especially true for tax preparation software, which has continual changes and an increasing number of taxing jurisdictions.

4. Technology is a long-term investment, yet the firm and its partners think in terms of the current year's net income.

5. Staff is often more comfortable with technology than they are in developing client relationships.

6. Staff is doing more with less, yet the economic model that drives the firm is still based upon effort (dollars times hours), rather than upon value.

7. Technology is one of the most pervasive and critical functions in a firm, yet its worth must be constantly proven.

8. Technology successes are generally invisible, while technology mistakes are highly visible.

9. IT people are told to be strategic, yet most of their time and budget are spent on the maintenance of existing systems.

10. Technology can make or break a firm, yet the chief information officer or IT leader is rarely on the management team.

Given these challenges, what should firms do to maximize the return on their IT investment? In times of increasing complexity and change, it is often necessary to simplify the process in order to break through the ceiling of complexity. Some of the critical steps to simplify IT are:

1. Know your metrics -- revenue per full-time equivalent, IT investment as a percent of net revenue, IT investment per FTE, and IT investment per chargeable hour.

2. Develop your own IT plan or road map. Firms differ because of their current IT infrastructure, vision and leadership - one size fits one firm.

3. Improve communications with a one-page plan that outlines the priorities, measurements of success, due dates and who is responsible.

4. Develop an innovative IT team that is responsive to the firm's needs, as well as the needs of clients.

5. Utilize peer networks to leverage resources and thinking.

Technology is important and critical to your success, even though it is complex, expensive and constantly changing. The ability to orchestrate the firm's business partners (vendors), end users and clients is an important and necessary task. Firms that have the IT leadership to accomplish this type of orchestration will be more successful and future-ready than those that simply let each department react to the current situation. IT is about progress, not perfection.

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

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