Firm leaders look to technology to drive future change
When they look out over the next five years, the leaders of the country’s leading accounting firms see technology reshaping their practices more than any other factor.
As part of Accounting Today’s annual Top 100 Firms study, managing partners and other senior firm leaders were asked to name the biggest changes they expect in their firms and the profession over the next five years — and their answers overwhelmingly involved some form or aspect of the digital.
In fact, most of the MPs and senior executives surveyed would broadly agree with the assessment of Jim Powers, chief executive officer of Chicago-based national firm Crowe. “Technology is going to reshape the professional services industry over the next five years,” he said. “The need for traditional accounting and consulting services will continue, but how they are delivered will change dramatically. In addition, there are tremendous opportunities for creating new services and solutions by leveraging many of the exciting advances in technology.”
Beyond that, though, firm leaders differed widely on which aspect of technology was most important — for some it was the specifics of artificial intelligence and blockchain; for others, the expansion of remote work or the new skill sets that accountants will have to develop to adapt; and for still others, the impact of all these and more on service areas both traditional and new — nor did all agree on whether these changes would be good or bad for the profession.
One of the most commonly cited drivers of change in accounting firms was actually a trio of individual technologies: artificial intelligence, robotic process automation and blockchain.
“All three of these challenges will have a profound effect on the firm,” wrote Mary Elliott, CEO of Alabama’s Warren Averett. “Many would argue that artificial intelligence is already here and affecting us. Due to the complex nature of coding related to AI, we are currently looking at vendor products that include components of AI to create efficiencies for internal processes and boost value-added insight for our clients.”
“Robotic process automation will affect our internal processes drastically. We are exploring our various data entry and repetitive tasks to determine whether a portion or an entire task can be automated using RPA,” she continued. “Blockchain technology will certainly affect both our internal processes and our clients’ business models. We believe blockchain will change the entire business ecosystem, and we have already begun educating our employees on what blockchain is and what it may mean for our industry and operations in the future.”
Blockchain will be a major focus for the firm’s director of innovation, and they have also hired a consultant to help their innovation team in keeping up with developments around the technology and educating their employees.
Others focused on the practice areas that will be impacted.
“We believe new technologies will have a profound effect on our firm and the broader profession as a whole in the next five years,” reported Matt Snow, CEO of North Carolina-based Dixon Hughes Goodman. “We are focused on adapting the strategy for all three of our major service lines of our firm: assurance, tax and advisory. For our assurance practice, we developed and implemented a new audit methodology and accompanying technology to support our assurance practice. We are also investing in the AICPA’s Dynamic Audit Solution, both as an investor and by offering firm resources to the project. Additionally, we are a member of a joint venture with three other firms to develop tools for our assurance practice incorporating the technologies referenced above.”
For tax, DHG is structuring its service line to leverage the opportunities offered by new technologies (as well as by tax reform), including more virtual assignment of engagement teams, and adding resources for deploying innovative solutions in clients’ compliance and reporting processes, while for advisory services, the firm continues to develop new and relevant service offerings for client industries as they evolve in the new digital marketplace, including cybersecurity, IT advisory services, data analytics services, and more.
“Adapting our workforce, skill sets and leverage model to new technology solutions that will come with these changes will be an evolving challenge,” Snow noted, and DHG has created a framework for change management in response, “recognizing that change adaptability is as critical as acquiring the new resources and technologies themselves.”
Making the most of technology was on the minds of many firm leaders, who often had specific applications in mind.
“Data analytics will play an increasingly important role in firms our size as we look to streamline processes to gain efficiencies to combat the continued pressure on fees,” said Philip Holthouse, MP of California’s Holthouse, Carlin & Van Trigt.
At Armanino, another California-based Top 100 Firm, meanwhile, CEO and MP Matt Armanino said, “The implementation of AI and machine learning presents opportunity. With more automated solutions, the firm can focus on being a strategic partner focused on future-proofing for clients, rather than investing human capital on the heavy lifting of audit examinations.”
The impact on people
The leaders of the Top 100 Firms don’t generally share the common concern that technology will automate away many traditional services or lead to fewer jobs for accountants.
“We expect to leverage technology in new ways that will allow us to maximize efficiency,” said Dayton Benway, managing principal of Maine’s Baker Newman Noyes. “However, we do not expect this will reduce the need for highly qualified professionals to provide client service.”
However, many of them think that all the different layers of the ongoing digital revolution will require significant adaptation on the part of their employees.
“The most impactful changes over the coming few years will come through leveraging new technologies to automate portions of our work,” said Brian Kreischer, managing partner of Frank, Rimerman & Co., in California. “This will also create an opportunity to radically re-think how we learn many core skills. Employees will be challenged to master new skills and acquire knowledge not through repetition, but through greater comprehension of context, concepts and business judgment.”
Similarly, the CEO of New York-based CohnReznick, Frank Longobardi, said, “Our people will need to learn and employ new competencies to work effectively, while many day-to-day manual accounting and auditing procedures will be automated. This frees our people to focus their skills on strategic analysis — interpreting rather than processing data.”
The new skills required by new technologies have a number of the Top 100 Firms rethinking how they train their staff.
“Advances in technology will continue to put pressure on us as we need to continue to make significant additional investments in both technology and talent to adapt to the changing profession,” noted John Litchfield, the COO and CFO of Tennessee-based LBMC. “We added a director of learning and development a couple of years ago, which has been a great add. We have to continue to train our professionals and equip them for new skill sets that will be required and effectively upskill all of the team members we have today so they will be prepared for the future.”
At RSM US, the firm has a number of programs in place to develop the skills necessary to turn its employees into “first-choice” advisors, which include, but definitely aren’t limited to, being more technology-savvy.
In fact, the Top 5 Firm saw reasons beyond technology to focus on training and staff development. “Over the next five years, we expect to see a continued influx of high-performing individuals from increasingly diverse backgrounds to reflect the growing global nature of our middle-market clients,” explained national public relations director Terri Andrews. “In addition to an increasingly diverse workforce, we expect the skill sets needed of our people to continue to evolve as technology reshapes our industry.”
And at New York-based Freed Maxick, technologies like RPA and AI have chairman and managing director Henry Koziol anticipating a new staffing model: “We will need to attract associates with new and nontraditional talent sets. This will then have an effect and ultimately change the staffing model in regards to available jobs and hiring.”
Other change agents
While technology was by far the most commonly cited change agent for the next five years, it wasn’t the only one.
Chris Olson, the COO of Blue & Co., expects that change at her Indiana-headquartered firm will focus in part on “integrating the recruitment of nontraditional majors or backgrounds that will enable the firm to better serve clients in the evolving CPA environment.”
Other firms are looking at major changes to internal functions over the next few years.
“We will completely move away from the chargeable hour revenue model and tracking time,” said Joey Havens, executive partner at Mississippi-based Horne. “This will free our team up to be more innovative and to focus on executing our client promises, leading to a distinctive client experience.”
Colorado-headquartered K-Coe Isom has a similar goal: “Getting rid of timesheets,” said CEO Jeff Wald. “Ditching the timesheets will change the value we place on the services we provide and create a different service delivery model that focuses on value creation versus time input.”