Integration is an important term that firms often use when talking about their technology, but many are finding the challenge even more difficult as they move to a digital platform. For years there has been discussion over whether you should buy best of breed or a suite from one of the leading vendors.

Many of the midsized and larger firms have accumulated what I refer to as Noah's Ark, where they have applications from multiple vendors with data transfer capabilities, but not necessarily integration. This is costing many firms today, as e-mail and digital content management become more prevalent and a distinct strategic advantage to those firms that are integrated. Defining and enforcing standards, policies and procedures is generally more important than the selection of individual applications. In fact, with Web-based applications, the market is demanding open architecture.

How did firms get to where they are today and what should they do going forward to ensure integration and efficiency? I believe many firms have operated in silos (audit, tax and administration) without a sound technology plan and often lacking leadership that understands the needs of the firm, as well as individual departments. It is not uncommon for strong tax and audit leaders to have their preferences, whether they are based upon familiarity or requirements. In today's environment, tax and audit may be the easiest part of deciding upon your firm's digital platform.

Over the past 10 years, e-mail has become a mission-critical application, resulting in many inefficient and high-risk practices regarding where to store and how to manage e-mail. There are basically three strategies with regard to e-mail, and they all have risk and a related cost:

1. Save everything. This is risky in audit and tax practices in the event of litigation.

2. Only store e-mail on the server for a limited period (e.g., 30, 60 or 90 days), then move it to more permanent storage or delete it.

3. Allow partners and employees to store e-mail in a variety of applications:

Exchange server;

Business records in a document management system; and,

Static and dynamic documents (including e-mail) in audit work paper packages.

Those who follow the "save everything" philosophy often justify their decision by stating that disk space is inexpensive and the firm has the backup capabilities and procedures to securely manage large amounts of data. In essence, this is placing a huge responsibility on internal IT resources. The current trend among firms with progressive IT strategies is to focus IT resources on innovation and revenue, rather than on maintenance of infrastructure. This is a strategic decision your leadership must make.

Storing e-mail on the server for a limited period of time requires enforcement of firm policies and procedures, including at the partner level. This strategy is generally met with extreme resistance by some partners and staff, but will reduce risk to the firm. This is change management at the highest level and will require both strong leadership and management to accomplish. How firm and IT leadership approach the change will be extremely important in ensuring success. I recommend you become familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as a guideline for developing your policies.

A CHOICE OF APPLICATIONS

The next decision firms must make is what e-mail should be stored as a business record, and where. We see the two primary alternatives as a work paper package or a true document/records management application that has version control, check-in/out and document destruction capabilities. Some of the more popular applications for midsized and larger firms are:

ProSystem fx Document from CCH;

GoFileRoom from Thomson Reuters;

FileCabinet Solution from Thomson Reuters;

Autonomy (formerly Interwoven); and,

SharePoint from Microsoft.

Search capabilities are a significant requirement and most users prefer integration with Outlook. The requirements of the audit department and the tax department often conflict, or at least perceptions may conflict. The audit department is often comfortable with their work paper package and does not see why static documents can't be stored along with dynamic documents.

All of the leading work paper packages (ProSystem fx Engagement, CaseWare and Engagement CS) have built-in "lockdown" features in order to comply with federal and state laws. I do not see this as an insurmountable problem, as long as the firm has standards that are enforced. The bigger problem, I believe, is with e-mail management.

In addition to the standards, policies and procedures, training is critical. It is something that is often done initially, but not done at an advanced level or for new users. Too many firms have focused on cost containment and reduced their training in IT and soft skills. This will have a significant impact in the future, as all firms are asking their partners and staff to do more with less. Technology and a digital platform are an important component of this strategy, along with process improvement and focusing on higher-margin services.

This is where leadership, integration, planning and strategy pay off. A business analyst (an internal IT person who understands both processes and system capabilities) can assist by matching requirements with system selection and design. The tendency in many firms is to fail to properly define and design the system. The system should include workflow and content management (dynamic documents, static documents, e-mail and business records). You will notice I referred to a system, rather than applications. The digital platform (system) will determine a firm's strategic advantage. Firms that focus their resources on innovation and revenue production will have significant advantages over firms that continue to focus on management of infrastructure.

THE CHANGING ROLE OF IT

This is where we see the role of the IT professional changing in the accounting profession.

IT strategy is generally more important than governance, but the use of an IT task force or committee is imperative in today's environment. The other important part of strategy is the integration of the firm's IT plan with its strategic plan. If your firm doesn't have current versions of both, you risk spending more on maintenance and less on innovation. Firms that spend the majority of their IT budget on maintenance tend to have lower margins and profitability. In addition to the above, firms should consider:

1. Hiring or developing a business analyst to focus on the integration of processes with the capabilities of new technology. This can reduce redundancy and inefficient processes, and leverage technology.

2. Providing IT training and enforcing firm standards, policies and procedures. A common misconception is that younger staff know the technology and higher-level people (staff and partners) don't need to know the technology. This is very dangerous, as a system is only as strong as its weakest point.

3. Virtualizing infrastructure and developing a strategy for the cloud.

4. Holding people accountable, including firm partners and managers.

Finally, don't forget your back-office integration. Business analytics are important, and if your financial statements are prepared using journal entries for WIP, payroll and receivables, it may be difficult to extract important management information. This is the reason that many firms use spreadsheets to produce management reports. Automating this process will save time and improve the accuracy of your reports. Don't be afraid to use a business analyst for back-office integration, as well as for core production applications. The goal should be to develop a reliable and efficient system that is scalable.

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

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