A number of years ago, I attended a conference where the keynote speaker was well-known futurist and author Alvin Toffler, whose ground-breaking 1970 tome Future Shock chronicled the rapid acceleration of structural changes in society from what he termed "going from industrial to super-industrial." He lobbed to those in attendance several then-unfamiliar terms (at least to yours truly) such as "digital revolution" and "knowledge workers."

I was still a bit fuzzy on his theme until he broke it down for me during a brief post-speech interview: "Bill, if you own one share of McDonald's, you, in essence, own pieces of the oven, fryers, meats and buns. If, however, you owned one share of Microsoft [which, at that time if I remember correctly, was just seven years old], 99 percent of what you own is the intellectual capital of its employees."

I was reminded of that long-ago lecture on the changing workplace with our last issue, in which we brought you a must-read feature that showcased one of the new strategies that continues to wend its way through an increasing number of CPA firms - career customization.

In order to remain competitive, more firms have come to the realization that they can no longer simply stand on ceremony and tradition when it comes to the changing structure of the workplace and their employees' career paths. Many have also learned that they cannot simply offer flexible work arrangements - an important component, to be sure, but just one facet of career customization.

But on to our current issue, in which we are delighted to present one of our Special Report staples over the years - Firm of the Future. In past editions, we've presented some different (I steadfastly refuse to say "out of the box") thoughts on what we can expect from the CPA firms of the future. Some predictions were dead on, such as an increasing number of remote workers, and greater spending on IT and marketing, while others were slower in gaining traction - i.e., more employee stock ownership plans and a decided shift toward value pricing.

But that was then and this is now.

It's hardly a secret that the accounting profession has been somewhat reticent in accepting change compared to other fields, but sometimes, external forces such as Sarbanes-Oxley and, more recently, the global financial crisis thrust change upon them. As a result, the firms that are proactive are usually the ones that will be best suited to survive competitive challenges.

We've seen the CPA firm landscape change as a result of the economic downturn as firms find themselves battling fee and margin pressures from clients, as well as accelerated competitive threats from both larger and smaller firms. It's also not much of a secret that the single track to partnership is disappearing faster than the Social Security surplus, so firms have had to address what the careers of future accountants will look like. Seismic changes in technology have presented alternative structures, such as "virtual firms" that exist solely online, a concept that was inconceivable even 10 years ago. The successful firm of the future will also focus on what new specialty services are coming into demand, and offer those to augment their audit and tax offerings.

Those firms that are able to see and address the challenges of the future will likely be around in the future. The ones that don't will surely suffer future shock.

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