Efforts to create a shared member database between the American Institute of CPAs and state CPA societies will be shelved indefinitely, after beta sites grappled for nearly two years with a flawed version of the platform.
In a July 6 memo to state society chief executives, J. Clarke Price, chairman of Shared Services LLC, said that the involved parties had underestimated the complexity of integrating Oracle's large-scale software platform with the computer membership systems of about 50 different partners. Price, who is also the chief executive and president of the Ohio Society of CPAs, has been running a beta site since August 2003 that continued to cause a number of problems in the society's day-to-day operations.
Jointly owned by the AICPA and the State Society Network Inc. (a nonprofit comprising CPA societies in the 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico), SSLLC was formed in 2000 with the goal of allowing CPA members to access membership updates and discount offers though the AICPA's for-profit Web portal, CPA2Biz.com. While an exact business model was never publicly mapped out, societies would have received a fee for each member's info that was contributed to the system and, eventually, a percentage of profits made from marketing deals.
When the plan was first announced, some state society heads expressed concern about the equity percentages of the deal, as well as what a one-stop portal could mean to the individual identities of the state societies and whether CPA members would be deluged by marketers.
Both the New York and Vermont societies refused to sign a continuance contract for the project in the spring of 2002.
Price said that the decision to shelve the platform finally came down to timeline concerns, not money. The AICPA had allocated about $10.2 million to underwrite the entire system's development, but Price said that the latest estimates were that it would take another six to 12 months for the internal piece of the platform to work the way that the societies needed. From there, even the most basic Web-enablement would take another four to six months.
Tony Pugliese, senior vice president of finance and administration for the AICPA, said that the Oracle platform is working for the larger national organization, which doesn't rely as heavily on real-time data. Although Pugliese said that there are a number of areas still being worked on, the AICPA chose a number of priority areas to focus on when its own beta version went live in December 2003, starting with the association's dues system, and other revenue-generating and member-facing areas.
"We went into this with the understanding this was an investment we needed to make, regardless of the states' involvement," said Pugliese, noting that some of the associations' technology dated back to the 1980s. "Another year will go by and we'll be in a better place. It's an exponential process. Each year we're improving by more than double."
Price said that, in hindsight, one of the things that he would have insisted on was that the shared database remove much of its capabilities for "terminal uniqueness." He said that if state societies standardized everything from terminology for new members and registration timelines on up, a working platform might have been more easily realized.
"I think if we had been more forceful in giving up that ability to keep so much unique to a society, we could really have let a truly best-of-breed product unfold," Price said. "We'd have been able to know a lot more about the member and what information we should be pushing to that member."
Aid will be given to the handful of states using the customer relations management or enterprise resource planning components of the partnership platform to transition off of the software, as well as to the Florida Institute of CPAs, which was also running a beta site. Full refunds will be made to all states that contributed either a reservation or implementation fee deposit and did not receive any services. More than half of the country's societies use Custom Data Systems' Association Management 4, including Ohio, which retained its AM4 license throughout the failed development process.
Pugliese said that the AICPA respected the societies' decision to pull out as the platform experiences growing pains. "We're okay with their decision," he said. "We have a good relationship with the states, and appreciate the support that they've given us throughout the development. We've shaken hands and said we can hopefully make it work later."
Along with the AICPA, Price hasn't ruled out revisiting the project in the future.
"We'd absolutely try again," Price said. "You can't put a price tag on what I've learned about my organization and the people we've had working on this project. As an organization, we want to be an early adopter, and this is an issue where we want to be out in front."
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