I am often asked what differentiates firms that are successful with technology from those that struggle. My standard response is that firms struggle with technology when they view it as overhead, but they invariably profit from it when they value it as a strategic asset.

Below I've outlined many of the keys necessary to improving your firm's culture, increasing profitability, and retaining and attracting quality personnel:

* A shared vision and effective leadership.

* An IT plan and budget that integrate with the firm's strategic plan.

* An IT governance system that incorporates firm leaders, managers and end users.

* A Competent and motivated IT personnel (internal and/or external).

* An outside perspective -- a review or an external member of the IT committee.

* A peer alliance to provide confidence.

* A training/learning culture that includes IT, along with CPE and soft skills.

* Accountability and employee recognition.

Technology is the accelerator that enables firms and their employees to perform at a high level. But this list includes much more because the most significant obstacles that firms face are the lack of a shared vision, plan and budget, as well as people with the right skills.

VISION AND LEADERSHIP

Many firms are comprised of departments, industry niches, multiple offices and even separate business units. While each may have distinct technology requirements, it is important that they share the same vision. What does the firm want to become, and why does it exist?

In the past, IT departments were rewarded for staying under budget and keeping systems operable. Today, most are required to be innovative and to drive revenue streams, and some firms do not have people with the right skills to accomplish these priorities.

As such, strong IT leadership is critical. Without it, firms invariably suffer from not knowing what they don't know. Leadership must capture the vision and develop the plan, while management implements it.

IT plan and budget

Many firms operate their IT departments from a budget, rather than a technology plan and budget. While budgets are important and easy for accountants to prepare, they do not typically establish priorities and allocate resources other than capital expenditures.

We recommend drafting a one-page IT plan that is easy to understand and communicate. It should integrate with the firm's strategic plan and be shared with all personnel. Good firms will manage from the plan and the budget.

Firms that plan successfully take the time to involve end users, managers and firm leaders from administration, training, niches and all practice areas. Time spent in planning upfront will save considerable time during implementation.

IT GOVERNANCE SYSTEM

IT governance is determined somewhat by the size of the firm, but the one word that differentiates governance among firms is "participatory." Firms that involve the personnel mentioned above are far more successful than those that simply plan within the IT department.

Some best practices today regarding IT governance are:

* A CIO who is a member of the firm's management team;

* An IT committee or task force that provides strategy, prioritizes initiatives and insures accountability;

* Project management teams with end users as leaders; and,

* Use of business analysts instead of engineers in support of end users.

IT PERSONNEL

The skillsets required of IT personnel are growing exponentially and forcing firms to use internal and external resources. It is impossible for any one individual to have in-depth knowledge of all technologies.

When hiring for IT positions, many firms give too much weight to accounting skills and background. One need not be an accountant in order to be a valuable IT employee. Accountants with IT skills are more valuable as business analysts.

A team approach works best for IT staffing. I recommend a centralized IT department for large, multiple-office firms.

OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVES

A firm's IT strategies and security initiatives should be reviewed regularly by someone outside the firm. It is difficult to evaluate processes if one is integrated into them. An independent review will provide assurances to a firm's partners and staff.

Several firms even include independent representatives on their IT committees. These people have knowledge of the accounting industry, as well as IT skills. Another trend is to conduct frequent meetings with key vendors. Firms should view vendors as business partners.

Security has become increasingly important as firms increase the use of portable hardware and access the Internet for communications and the transfer of client data. I also recommend an independent risk assessment to ensure that your data and systems are safe.

PEER ALLIANCES

Many firms believe that their IT issues are unique, but most such issues are common. How a firm plans, staffs and implements sets it apart. The best firms get better by networking with peers, sharing best practices and problem-solving together.

Membership with an association is not enough with respect to technology. It takes time to develop relationships and trust, but an environment that combines leadership, management and IT personnel produces significant results. We are fortunate to witness the growth of strong peer networks via the Boomer Technology Circles.

TRAINING/LEARNING

When it comes to training, The Gartner Group asserts a return of five to one -- for every hour a firm spends on training, it receives five hours of proficiency in return. Whether you believe that statistic or not, a training and learning culture has proven to be indispensable for our industry in the retention and attraction of quality personnel.

Merely operating a training and learning program differentiates your firm from many of its competitors. Cultivating a training/learning culture will differentiate it even further.

Investments in hardware and software are not enough. IT is now one of three critical learning components, along with traditional CPE and soft skills development. Moreover, training and learning are two-way streets. Your personnel should be expected to do both.

Someone must be in charge of training and learning in your firm. They should not be a partner or accountant, but an experienced adult educator who understands how to develop learning ladders, curricula and individual plans. (For the past 13 years, we have conducted the annual Human Capital and Learning Symposium to help firms develop these professionals. The next is in Kansas City, Mo., on Feb. 26-27, 2008).

RESPONSIBLE AND REWARDED

The most important components in how the best get better are planning accountability and recognition. Most accountants recognize the importance of planning even if they don't take time to do it. Accountability (starting with the partners) is critical to the plan's success.

Recognizing employees for doing the right things in support of initiatives and supporting the right behavior are also important. Holding people accountable is the responsibility of management.

I caution small firms not to dismiss their potential, because it is often easier for them to implement change if they have the right leadership and a shared vision. The pressure for large firms is to stay focused and get the right people playing the right position for the team.

While these criteria are not all-inclusive, they do represent successful firms. Growth is not about perfection, but about progress.

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

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