It's the 15th of February and your firm is just going into the heart of tax season. The managing partner learns that the document management implementation is not going as planned. In fact, people - including partners - have lost their commitment to the project and are saying that the change is too difficult (among other excuses). You have to make a decision: Pull the plug on the project or figure out a way to make the project succeed.

What would you do? What would your firm do? In my opinion, most firms would conduct a quick partner meeting and decide to back off until after the busy season.

This is the exact situation that Ostroff, Fair & Co. PC, a 30-person firm located in suburban Philadelphia, faced this past tax season. The firm purchased ProSystem fx Engagement late in 2003, had CCH training during 2004 and planned to fully implement the software during the 2005 busy season.

Managing partner Louis Rovner states, "By the second week of February, I was getting feedback that the application and use of Engagement was not going as I had anticipated. Apparently, not everyone was as comfortable pulling the plug on the paper as we wanted them to be."

Rather than succumb to the pressures of the season, he made a bold decision. He quickly set up a task force, including himself, to evaluate the issues and find a solution to the problem. The conclusion was that more "practical" training was needed. Given the fact that it was more than half-way through February, a prudent approach was to conduct quality training immediately, rather than wait to pull the less-paper plug until after tax season.

Based upon that decision, Rovner demonstrated leadership and scheduled three days - February 22 to 25 - for training. Through his contacts at the Boomer Technology Circles, he found and hired Brian Steinert, head of training at Kennedy and Coe LLC, a large regional accounting firm based in Salina, Kan.

Brian, an experienced trainer, made a huge impact. Louis states, "Our feeling was that he has first-hand knowledge of all the issues, procedures and questions that applied to accounting firms using ProSystem fx Engagement." Rovner was also convinced he would get an immediate return on his investment.

The bottom line? Success.

"We brought him in and the training was exactly as we had anticipated. He was an excellent teacher and it was obvious that he had dealt with our specific issues and questions many times before. We went full speed ahead with Engagement and fulfilled our 'less paper goal' for the 2005 tax season," says Rovner.

Everyone, including Rovner and his partners, was required to take the training. A bit of leadership by example provided powerful results. Brian Steinert admits he was a bit surprised to get the call in February, and Philadelphia was not his choice for a winter vacation.

Help arrives

"I did find it a bit out of character to have the CEO of an accounting firm call and ask me to take his staff away from chargeable work for a couple days right in the heat of tax season," Steinert says. "Though after listening to what Louis had to say, I knew they were struggling with the same issues most other firms face when attempting to go paperless, but also knew that he was committed to doing whatever it took to be successful, as long as there was a return on the investment.

"I told Louis the first step was to develop standard processes and procedures, which meant more time from his staff than just attending training. Without these to help them apply what they would learn in training, they would not have been much better off than when they started. If you told 10 people who just learned how to drive a car to go to the beach, but didn't tell them which beach or how to get there, there could be 10 different results. One of the benefits of going down the less-paper road is the opportunity to gain efficiencies by standardizing processes and procedures so the end results of like projects are the same every time.

"I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived that Tuesday afternoon," Steinert continues. "Taking time away from an accountant during tax season is like taking food away from a bear just out of hibernation. It could have been ugly, but to my surprise I found most everyone was looking forward to going through the process. After meeting with the paperless committee and interviewing the processing staff to get an idea of how things flow through the office and hear each person's frustrations, we got down to the business of the day: developing the standards. I've gone through this process not only with Kennedy and Coe, but with a number of other firms across the country, so I was able to provide a template of standard procedures that served as a starting place.

"By noon on Wednesday, we had worked through the entire document, and I spent the rest of the day putting the final touches on this and the other training documentation. The next day-and-a-half of training was tailored to give partners and staff alike the opportunity to learn both their new standard processes and procedures and the tools they had purchased (FX Engagement, Adobe, etc) by working through hands-on training modules. They left training with a clear understanding of how work comes in the door, how if flows through the office, and what it should look like as a finished product. In addition to the standards, each attendee left with customized Quick References for each program they use in this process, as well as templates for generating financials statements.

"It's great to hear that they had a successful tax season, though it comes as no surprise," Steinert concludes. "Except for starting the process at the wrong time of year, they had everything going for them: a committed leader who is respected by the staff and who knows the value of training; knowledgeable people willing to champion the process; and, fortunately for Ostroff Fair, great staff willing to learn something new ... even during tax season."

Louis and Brian tell a compelling story that shows how leadership, training, technology, culture and quality people are all differentiating factors. These same factors are also important in attracting and retaining quality people.

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