This sounds like an easy question, but it may be one of the most important decisions your firm makes as you move forward in rapidly changing times. In some firms, the name of the person will be obvious, while in other firms, people may name multiple people or simply say, "No one is really in charge of technology."Even in firms where the name is obvious, you should ask, "Do we have the right person in today's economy and rapidly changing technology?" Hopefully the answer is "Yes," but let's answer some probing questions before simply accepting the current IT leader. You should have a single person who acts as a focal point for leading IT. This does not necessarily have to be someone in the IT department. It can be a partner or other firm leader.

The questions to ask are:

1. Is this person effective? In other words, do they do the right things?

2. Is this person efficient? In other words, do they do things right?

3. Does this person paint a clear vision of the future of IT in the firm?

4. Is this person a good communicator and capable of removing obstacles?

5. Is this person a good motivator of IT staff and end users?

6. Is this person capable of persuading others that non-critical projects shouldn't be pursued?

7. Does this person have the trust and respect of the partners to negotiate for adequate resources to meet the IT requirements of the firm's strategic plan? (Too many resources can be as detrimental as insufficient resources.)

8. Does this person have the ability to build a unique-ability team with the right aptitudes and skills?

9. Is this person passionate about training IT staff as well as the end users?

10. Are they committed to standardization of processes?

Your first reaction may be that you don't see anything about technical skills. IT has matured over the past 25 years. One of my first quotes when entering the profession was, "You don't have to know how to build the watch; you only need to know how to tell time." Perhaps that was a little exaggerated at the time, but today it is true.

Let's look at an automobile. In the early days, drivers had to be part-mechanic and part-driver to ensure success. Today, anyone can drive without mechanical knowledge. The same holds true for technology. A great IT leader is not enamored with the "how," but interested in "what" should be done. Rising beyond technical skills is a challenge for many IT professions. With that said, it does help to have a good understanding of the capabilities and trends in technology.

NOT THE BE-ALL, END-ALL

If it sounds like I believe that IT is the most important thing going on in a firm, it is not! The firm drives IT strategy. IT strategy should not drive the firm. IT strategy can make your firm both effective and efficient. It can also provide leverage and growth, while increasing revenue per full-time equivalent.

Your IT leader should be an integral part of the firm's management team. IT cuts across all aspects of the firm, and the lack of IT strategy in any area can be very dangerous. This includes both front-stage and back-stage operations, such as the firm's own internal systems. Many of these systems lack proper integration and were designed based upon applications, rather than on workflow, processes and an integrated system.

One of the most difficult challenges for the IT leader is to identify and eliminate wizards in the firm. A wizard is someone who is unreasonably committed to keeping the system the way it was, even though it offers low productivity to the rest of the employees, particularly the non-wizards. Examples of wizardry are the resistance to the elimination of paper (a digital environment) and e-mail management. Training can alleviate the wizardry problem if the person is open to lifelong learning.

Your IT leader must be capable of managing change as IT continues to transform firms at an increasing pace. This requires significant communication skills that technical IT personnel often don't have.

The following action plan will help your firm determine if it has the right IT leader, and if not, what it can do to find the appropriate purpose:

* Honestly answer the 10 questions presented earlier.

* Conduct an IT management review of the firm's team and strategies.

* If you don't have the right person, identify and select your IT leader.

* Utilize external consulting and coaching for the IT leader to develop the appropriate skills.

* Make certain the firm's IT plan is driven by the firm's strategic plan.

Many firms are trying to reduce IT expenditures during difficult economic times. I believe today that there are many investment opportunities for those firms with focused IT strategies that are willing to change their processes, train their people and take advantage of current and future tech.

Too often, partners and end users only think about the cost of the desktop computer or notebook they personally use. This normally runs approximately 5 percent to 6 percent of the entire IT budget. Deferring upgrading desktops and notebooks probably isn't going to have a negative impact on your firm. What will impact the firm negatively is if it doesn't change its processes to better utilize its existing technology, set standards and train to those standards. Also, focus on high-priority projects and eliminate unnecessary projects. Doing the right projects is the key to effectiveness. Doing projects well is the key to efficiency.

The right IT leader will ensure that effectiveness and efficiency both happen.

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

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