Both in specific practice areas and for firms as a whole, technology is automating and streamlining accountants’ work, even as the tools themselves grow more integrated and more useful, according to industry experts from the CPA Consultants’ Alliance.

In “CPA Firm Technology Trends,” one of the CPACA’s “Issues and Answers” video series, members of the alliance examine how new developments are impacting every aspect of the modern accounting firm.

Starting in tax, the panelists pointed up the importance of technologies that organize the work, rather than those that prepare or file returns.

“What it really comes down to is having an integrated workflow tool,” said Roman Kepczyk, director of consulting at Xcentric. “When we consult with firms, we find that there are long-time processes for tracking all aspects of the process, but these all seem to be in different applications. We need a way to have everything centralized in one place, so anyone who’s authorized to see it in the firm has easy access to that. Workflow tools are the solution. In smaller firms, that may be practice management projects, which are modules that allow them to track all those steps pretty cohesively. The problem is that, as you get much larger, the sheer volume of returns, makes those somewhat kludgy, so we see firms implement dedicated workflow solutions.”

“Having a workflow solution is a no-brainer in tomorrow’s CPA firm,” added Dustin Hostetler, chief innovation officer at Boomer Consulting. “You can’t properly manage a tax practice without having that integrated workflow solution to automate the movement of the tax work through the office. We’re finally there where we can have that paperless tax process from engagement acceptance all the way through to e-filing of the return, which not only benefits us but gives our clients a much friendlier client experience.”

For the other major components of the traditional accounting practice – accounting and auditing – the impact of technology is often felt more at the level of the grunt work that bookkeepers and auditors slog through.

“Automation is the big word here,” Hostetler said. “More and more, the A&A side of firms is becoming more and more automated. You’re seeing some of the artificial intelligence software coming into the market. Some of the Big Four have their own homegrown solutions to automate more of the workpapers and work you traditionally do during fieldwork.”

Citing the growing availability of such tools for auditors and accountants at firms of all sizes, he added, “That’s going to change the mindset of the audit practice from compliance to consultative. As automation and efficiency get driven into the audit practice, there’s going to be downward pressure on fees” – and firms will need to counter that by moving to more value-added advisory services.

Kepczyk noted two technology trends that are streamlining access to audit and accounting data: “One trend would be the centralization of data so that it’s run on servers, and rather than checking out binders and working out in the field, all the work is done on the servers. Not only can the field auditor access it, but maybe a manager in a different location or the manager in the office can look at those workpapers. The other benefit of having everything centralized on the services is that, from a security perspective, there’s no more data residing on the local workstation, so if a laptop happens to be lost or stolen, the risks of a security breach are significantly reduced.”

“The other thing we want firms to take a look at is that we’re seeing a trend towards going to a single audit suite for not only the engagement binder, but also for the workpaper programs,” he added. “Can we put all of our information in one place? … We’re seeing vendors put everything in one bucket to eliminate the lack of integration between products.”

Sarah Johnson Dobek, president of Inovautus Consulting, took up the theme of integration as one that’s being felt all across tech-savvy firms.

“One of the challenges that many firms have had over the years is that all of the software you use on the tax and audit side tends not to talk to each other,” she said. “That’s gotten much better over the years, but a lot of the information still resides in these disparate programs and there hasn’t always been a way to get that.”

Now, she explained, more and more software vendors are developing special tools that allow information to flow out of their applications more freely. “We’re seeing firms really focus on integration of software so the data is being provided to the marketing and business development professionals that are charged with growing the firm, so it’s getting into CRM systems, and they’re building special integrations to allow all the information to come together.”

All of this is actually being felt beyond firms themselves.

“The other impact we’re seeing of combined technology is that it’s helping enhance the client experience,” Dobek continued. “This is a huge focus for CPA firms right now, to really look at what is their client experience. Because of the move toward building a much more consultative practice, client experience has really risen to the top in this move away from compliance-only services. A lot of firms are starting to focus on how they can do this better, and technology is going to be a huge aid in being able to figure out some of those touchpoints – everything from notifying clients where something is in process, to how they use the portal, to how your staff engages with it.”

The video covers a number of other critical technology trends, including cloud adoption, remote work, and more; it and the other three videos in the CPA CA “Issues and Answers” series are available on the alliance’s YouTube page.

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Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood

Daniel Hood is editor-in-chief of Accounting Today and Tax Pro Today, and has covered the tax and accounting field for over 20 years.