Some ideas are born as buzz words, trendyconcepts that may never directly apply to most accounting firms. But those ideas and concepts that do survive the "Next Big Thing" chatter to become a fundamental part of a firm's strategy are worth their weight in blog posts, whitepapers and presentations.
Some of these concepts are just gaining traction among the accounting profession's thought leaders, while others benefit from very vocal champions. Regardless of their developmental stage, all of these ideas will undoubtedly have an impact on how firms conduct business in the near future.
1. Inclusion. While it functions as a modern lens for traditional diversity initiatives, the concept of inclusion goes far beyond an update in terminology, instead offering a more expansive, progressive idea of a representative workforce. It was also foundational in Deloitte's recently unveiled Deloitte University Leadership Center for Inclusion, with managing principal Christie Smith declaring at the launch event, "This is not our job as leaders, but must be our calling ... to build a culture where we all can thrive." This "all" includes different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and generations, along with the disabled and military veterans.
The top firms are better representing and developing these demographics through dedicated leadership, resource groups and sponsorship programs. Deloitte also created an external advisory council that includes Kenji Yoshino, New York University School of Law professor and Smith's co-author on a recent survey finding that people of diverse backgrounds "cover" their differences, and thus their authentic selves, in the workplace. The report supports the hotly advocated business case for inclusion to reflect a more diverse marketplace, but also as a source of internal productivity. The survey found that respondents' sense of opportunity and commitment to the organization dwindled in the face of a workplace culture's expectations to "hide" their unique identity. As Smith noted, this "cost to the individual and the organization is too great to ignore."
2. Higher level advisory/client advisory services. While the general public usually pigeonholes accountants to tax preparation, CPAs should be capitalizing on another, more lucrative public perception to market their unique skillset -- that of "trusted advisor." Some firms already are, by adding higher-level advisory work to their client services, though not enough, according to Boomer Consulting's Gary Boomer, who recently urged a crowd at his Boomer Technology Circles summit to go beyond traditional and business performance services to the strategic planning level.
"One of the greatest opportunities for firms are advisory services, yet many people trained in the traditional audit and tax areas have trouble delivering advisory services," he said, noting that the common excuse is a lack of time. To vault that obstacle, Boomer offered the lure of higher profit, sharing that some firms "are taking the average monthly fees that their clients are paying up four times, to between $4,000 and $5,000 from under $1,000." According to Boomer, "most of the top firms" are offering these higher-level services, so it's only a matter of time before the rest of the profession follows suit.
3. Soft skills. What does strength-based psychology have in common with an accounting firm's strategic plan? Not much, before soft skills-based leadership training made its big mark on the profession, due in no small part to Tom Hood, chief executive officer of the Maryland Association of CPAs and the Business Learning Institute, a Maryland-based change-management and networking resource center. Hood, along with his team of training consultants and BLI instructors, with backgrounds that range from the military to academia, have introduced accountants to new tools of introspection and goal-oriented planning. Those current and future leaders then bring these techniques back to their firms, transforming internal meetings from progress reports to forward-thinking brainstorm sessions.
4. Value pricing. The rallying cry of "Death to time sheets" has long been sounded from various corners of the profession, and the din has only grown with the technological advancements that facilitate a value-pricing structure. Those firms that have embraced the progressive model continue to perfect the blueprint, with some forming proposal-approving value councils and others offering clients "value solutions" packages. Ron Baker, as value pricing's leading and most vocal proponent, continues to lead the charge. "My life is dedicated to eradicating time & billing, realization rates, utilization, and any other measurement denominated in hours," he said, adding that they are "holding the profession back."
5. Entrepreneurship. Progressive firm leaders are striking a new tone at the top, one that celebrates autonomy and creative freedom, and ripples down to challenge and empower staff to do their best work. As business owners, these firm heads understand the value of personal growth and trial-by-fire, and encourage that entrepreneurial mindset. "If you have good people, remove all barriers hindering them so they can be creative, successful, and grow," advised Jason Blumer, chief innovation officer at Blumer & Associates CPAs. "You need a margin in life to be creative, and that's where you add value as an entrepreneur."
Meanwhile, managing partner Andy Armanino described his Top 30 CPA firm Armanino as being founded by entrepreneurial leaders who are "doing things differently" and Michael Hsu, who founded "outsourced accounting department" DeepSky during the night hours of his former day job, promotes working outside the traditional constraints of time or compensation. "Entrepreneurs tend to underpay and undervalue what we do," he explained. "You get paid for what you own, what you do, and the risk you take."
6. Big data. Big data can reap big rewards for firms that use their predictive power to advise clients. And with technology vendors optimizing predictive market analytics to integrate into traditional decision-making processes, firms have a unique opportunity to be the vanguard of this valued service.
7. Hiring non-CPA professionals. As much as accountants capitalize on their CPA designation to serve clients, they should consider hiring outside it to both attract and retain them. In today's economy, marketing and sales can no longer be the part-time pursuit of senior staff, and some client industries require dedicated, non-CPA experts. Mid-level accounting talent is also becoming scarcer, so hiring outside the profession is not only a differentiator but economical. Consultant Gary Boomer is a proponent of the cross-over potential, explaining, "I learned more accounting from economics than I learned economics from accounting." Marketing consultant Art Kuesel has worked with a range of firms that could benefit from a sales or marketing director on staff -- and sometimes both -- remarking, "It is a growing trend, as firms better understand the rewards, and how to motivate and compensate" those roles.
8. The virtual firm. The few accounting firms that have completely ditched the bricks of a company office to prove their case for a more productive and mobile workforce are admittedly still refining their new ideal. Jennifer Katrulya, founder and owner of a virtual Connecticut firm with 24 remotely working employees, has noted the continued need for (non-iPhone-enabled) face time, and Blumer & Associates has had to shed clients that don't share its virtual vision. Still, the pioneers of doing without an office have the rapid pace of technology on their side, as the hot mobile trend, especially, keeps staff and clients more effortlessly connected.
9. Continuous auditing. The technology-enabled liberation from traditional time constraints responsible for most of today's fastest-gaining trends also brings viability to the continuous auditing model. Busy seasons could be a thing of the past, as today's reporting tools have the potential to keep the books open for near real-time, detailed scrutiny.
10. Knowledge management. Think of this as asset management for one of your firm's most valuable assets: the knowledge and expertise of your staff. Most firms don't know what their employees know, and so are unable to capitalize on it for solving client problems or developing profitable new services. Some, though, are beginning to find a new home for this knowledge base in software that connects a firm's valuable network of internal experts.
Through this kind of self-aware network, problems are more quickly and definitively solved, and best practices established. And by standardizing one of the profession's biggest trends -- that of widespread collaboration -- this process could very well birth the next generation of big ideas.
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