Some days, you just need a sounding board to solve a problem. Other days, it's helpful to have someone else to supply the solution.

When faced with a lousy headline, a story lead that just doesn't work, or, worse yet, a blank screen, I often turn to my colleagues for help. Sometimes, just thinking out loud can help me figure out how to move forward with an idea that I've been stuck on for an hour. Sometimes, having another person offer their perspective can help clear up a confusing issue. And other times, borrowing an idea that has sprung forth from a generous co-worker (with permission, of course) is the best way to solve a problem.

Along these lines, where do CPA firms turn when they are looking to develop best practices or to break into new niches? Enter the CPA firm alliance. It's not a new concept, but being a part of a group of peers can be a great way for firms to explore alternative solutions to the issues they face.

There's a reason that accounting firm associations have proliferated. They're a chance for like-minded firms to exchange ideas -- to talk about what works and what doesn't work, and to see how firms like their own are handling the challenges of today's business environment. This approved method of corporate espionage is a smart way for firms with similar goals -- who don't happen to compete in the same markets -- to learn each other's secrets for success and, sometimes, to leverage each other's strengths. Being part of such a group can also mean the difference between referring a client to a firm that you know and trust -- and one that has agreed not to steal business from you -- for a service that requires a high level of specialization, or having that client seek out a competitor.

As any firm that's had a good or bad association experience can attest, finding the right fit is paramount. Firms that are either much larger or much smaller than the rest of the peer group -- or end up being on either end of that scale after a few years of mergers and acquisitions -- don't usually seem to reap the benefits for which they had hoped. But there are enough groups out there to ensure that most firms can find a network that meets their needs. Our Web resources section lists more than a dozen and that's far from a complete list. So why not try one on for size?

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