Does your firm have the right IT leader?
Do you have a written IT plan and a budget that integrates with the firm's strategic plan?
Is technology viewed as a strategic asset?
Do you have the right IT skills on your team?
Now read the rest of this article and then see which questions your firm can answer positively. If you don't know, you can reasonably assume the answer is "No."
As in sports, the basics are important and many firms are missing out on revenue opportunities and lack efficiency due to their lack of IT leadership.
Technology requirements are changing very rapidly, yet many firms continue to approach technology in the same way they have for years. Leadership is imperative and there is a direct correlation between firm success and IT leadership. Firms that have great leadership are positioning themselves to take advantage of the cloud and focus on integration, innovation and new revenue opportunities. The chief executive officer's understanding of technology and commitment to technology directly impacts success. Success is defined as profitability plus sustainability.
CIO Magazine characterizes IT leaders as functionary, transformational or business strategists. Functionary IT personnel keep the firm running and don't waste time or money. Just what most delivery partners like - low cost and no change.
Transformational leaders redesign business processes and lead change, while business strategists are more interactive with the end users and develop IT-enabled business systems. A case can be made for having all of these skills, but most firms have focused on functionary IT personnel, and may now be paying a significant price due to the rapid changes driven by the consumer market and now being incorporated into most firms.
An example is the iPhone and iPad. Both Apple devices were banned from most IT departments until 1-1/2 years ago. In fact, the iPad didn't exist two years ago, and now it is an integral part of many firms. Another is the Internet platform that provides the ability to instantly bill and collect (ACH payments). These all required changes in both thinking and processes.
A well-trained chief information officer should be a key member of your firm's management team, yet many firms only leverage this resource when there are problems. Not all IT personnel are qualified, but I am referring to those CIOs who have leadership, management and technology skills. The following list demonstrates the breadth of the IT leader's required skill set:
Communication: Great IT leaders are great communicators and listeners. Be consistent and speak in understandable terms. Promote the positive and maintain a high level of confidence.
Business savvy: Bridge the gap between IT and the firm's economic engine. This is a skill that, frankly, many technical CPAs (delivery) do not possess, or at least not at a level to manage or lead a major firm or business.
Marketing and sales: Be able to communicate the vision and the advantages of new technology. Educate partners and end users on how they can leverage technology as a strategic asset.
Human resources: Build a team of IT professionals to deliver resources to the firm using internal and external (sourced) resources.
Project management: Manage priority projects to ensure success, on-time completion and adherence to budget. Communicate expectations up front and be realistic.
Budgeting and cash flow: Listen to the end users and practice units. Establish priorities, budget and project cash flows.
Strategy and planning: Integrate the firm's tech plan with its strategic plan. Be responsible for IT planning and budgeting.
As you review this list, it may quickly become apparent that your technology professionals do not have many of these skills. The options are to develop your technology professionals or recruit from the market. Going to the outside is not as easy as it might appear due to the current market demand for IT professionals, and particularly CIOs. Most firms' infrastructure is very complex with the silos of tax, audit & attest, and the firm back office. Firms have as many as 10 times the number of applications as their clients to support and have utilized a silo approach, rather than an enterprise approach, to systems. This results in both complexity and increased costs of maintenance.
For the past three years, we have offered a program called The CIO Advantage. It is focused on IT professionals who desire to advance and provides a peer network and developmental sessions. The results have been amazing, with many participants taking on significant leadership and management roles in their firms. The biggest challenge has been to focus on communications, planning, project management and team-building skills. The tendency is to want to maintain technical superiority. Those who diversify their skills become much more valuable to their firms.
The CIO role is not for every IT professional, just as the chief executive role is not for every CPA. It does take a special set of skills, with the most important being the ability to lead. Trust also plays a key role in determining the cost of projects and the required timelines. In firms that have a high level of trust, the investments in time and dollars are less.
An external management review of your IT department will often provide a fresh perspective and stimulate partner thinking about planning, people and processes. "Faster, better, cheaper and easier" is today's theme. Without great IT leadership, strategy and execution, this theme is impossible.
Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
A FULL SkILL SET
A sampling of the talents IT leaders need to develop:
Marketing and sales skills
Human resources skills
Project management skills
Budgeting and cash flow skills
Strategy and planning skills
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