As evidence of the recent merger mania within the tax prep arena, customers from five different vendors were represented at last month's CCH and Creative Solutions user conferences, which were held in Boca Raton and Orlando, Fla., respectively.Both CCH and CSI have made recent purchases of other vendors - Creative Solutions merging Dunphy Systems into its user base, and CCH purchasing ATX Kleinrock and TaxWise as continuing entities.

Nevertheless, industry consolidation yielded to announcements of new technology strategies and staffing dilemmas that emerged as marquee topics of discussion at each conference.

CCH president and chief executive Kevin Robert emphasized community and partnership between CCH users, their clients and CCH. He outlined specific new technology initiatives that CCH is investing in to ensure that its customers are positioned to grow their competitive business advantage.

"With the backing of [parent company] Wolters Kluwer, CCH is investing more today in our software and research technology than at any other time in our history," he said. "Through this significant new investment, CCH is driving new levels of technology innovation through its .Net strategy and enhancements to its online research platform to ensure portability, ease of use and tight integration with our vast array of workflow tools."

Meanwhile, Creative Solutions president and chief executive Jon Baron emphasized communication and the need for firms to re-evaluate task-oriented processes in developing an integrated workflow system. "As the profession moves from a task-oriented mindset to a workflow-management approach, they will provide better, faster service to their clients, with far less effort," he said. "The result will be happier clients and more profitable accountants."

"Our primary goal is to show our customers how powerful technology solutions, properly deployed, can improve communication and collaboration with clients, as well as drive efficiencies within the firm," he went on. "The revolutionary changes in converging technology offer great opportunity for firms. We want to show our users how they can take advantage of advanced technologies to elevate themselves beyond just tasks, such as producing tax returns or financial statements, to integrated workflow processes."

Creative Solutions Toolbox, Financial Analysis and Practice have all been developed using .Net technology, while existing products Ultra Tax, FileCabinet and Fixed Assets are being phased in with the new technology, according to Baron. "Moving toward integrated systems and process will not only drive efficiencies, but also allow firms to extend their reach, expand services and serve more clients - all without increasing staff, time investment or cost."

The staffing dilemma

Highlights at both meetings were roundtable discussion groups, which actively encouraged user participation.

Speakers emphasized the need to address staffing issues, particularly with younger professional employees.

In keynote sessions at the CCH conference, Leslie Murphy, 2005-2006 chair of the American Institute of CPAs, and Mike Sabbatis, executive vice president of global sales and marketing for CCH, focused on the business approaches that firms need to consider as they look to attract and retain workers in a growing profession facing a labor shortfall.

The good news is that while the demand for qualified accounting professionals still outstrips the supply, more students are being attracted to the profession, according to Murphy, who is also the group managing partner for the Michigan-based firm of Plante & Moran. However, she cautioned that a shortage of professionals is likely a chronic condition for the profession for the foreseeable future, and firms need to do more to attract and hold on to staff if they are going to prosper over the long term.

"Business complexities mean it takes more time to complete routine accounting tasks; auditing standards continue to add to the work that needs to be done; and there's a much higher regard for internal control and fraud prevention in every entity, large and small," she said. "Addressing these issues requires a highly skilled workforce and, while more students are interested in the opportunities in accounting, our profession has to do more to make it inclusive and attractive if we're going to successfully compete with the other career options available."

"High-skilled service firms and organizations - like those that employ accountants, nurses and lawyers - will face a more severe labor crunch because they are hurt by three dimensions of the labor drought: slower labor force growth, the graying of the labor force and the skill gap. As a result, firms will face severe competition for increasingly scarce and costly talent," said Murphy.

Murphy noted that firms need to be more aware of what motivates younger workers, including enhancing their ability to balance career and personal life, developing attractive firm cultures, enhancing flexibility and satisfying staff's desire to have an impact in what they do.

"By 2020, three out of four AICPA members will be nearing retirement age. About 60 percent of firms have owners in the pre-retirement ages of 55 to 62, yet only 21 percent of all firms have a succession plan," she said. "So, you have a significant number of professionals retiring, and fewer entering to fill their shoes. It's clear firms need to start thinking about their future today - how they're going to meet their staffing challenges, how they are going to motivate and recognize their employees and how they're going to groom leadership in their organization - if they want to be around 10 or 20 years from now."

Sabbatis unveiled findings from the CCH Young Accounting Professionals Survey, emphasizing four themes designed to help firms grow their business: talent, training, technology and teamwork.

"Talent management is something that every firm now needs to actively pursue," said Sabbatis. "Significant investment goes into recruiting. But to maximize investments, firms need to understand the workforce better. They must look at career paths and implement development programs that keep good employees eager to work for their firm."

Noted technology consultant and Accounting Today columnist Gary Boomer sounded a similar theme at his CCH session, in which he noted that during the last two decades, the workforce increased by 54 percent, while it is projected to grow only 3 percent over the next two decades. This drop in the growth rate will come at the same time that Baby Boomers will be retiring in large numbers, and will affect the accounting profession as much as any, according to Boomer.

"The only profession not having this drop-off is the legal profession," he said.

The outsourcing answer

One solution is outsourcing, which Boomer noted has enjoyed tremendous growth, with security, quality and turnaround times advancing to rival those in the U.S.

For those who are hesitant to outsource to another country, both CCH and Creative Solutions touted their "anytime, anywhere" technologies, which allows tax preparers to work remotely at their convenience.

Robert Carmines, a Newport News, Va.-based CPA, underscored this alternative in his remote computing presentation at the Creative Solutions conference.

When two of his best tax preparers moved to distant locations to be with their families, he was able to retain both using remote technology. Because of his location near several military bases, many of

his preparers come from military families that get stationed elsewhere after several years. "The military bases provide a great pool of potential preparers, but by the time they were trained, they would leave," he said. "I could keep my best employees using this technology."

"My tax manager worked from Germany, and one of my best preparers worked from Alaska," he said.

"I wouldn't outsource to someone I don't know," he added. "I know the type of preparers I have in my office. They may be A, B or C preparers - with the C preparers, you give them the easier returns. And with [Voice over Internet Protocol], they can call the client directly if there are any questions."

The key to making remote preparation work is investing in the proper equipment, and matching what you need done with who you need to do it, according to Carmines.

"They should be flexible and tech-savvy for this to work," he noted.

Carmines noted that remote computing enables local as well as distance-based employees to prepare returns from outside the office environment.

"Last year we had 10 inches of snow and [both] school and our employees were out for a week. We were able to continue working thanks to Terminal Services and an aggressive scanning policy," he said.

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