Technology is the accelerator for improving performance and meeting client requirements in today's economy. You can do more with less, but reducing investments in training and technology (as some have done this past year) only results in making your business less competitive.
The amount your firm invests in technology may not be as important as where it invests. Too many firms simply maintain existing technology, rather than investing in new hardware and software that bolster innovation and new revenue streams.
The easy cuts were made this past year in most firms. Now firms must address performance issues at all levels, including partners and others with seniority, who have not maintained their skills and risk obsolescence.
Technology plays a significant role in four primary areas that comprise a competitive strategy for the years to come:
* Talent management;
* Process and workflow;
* Marketing and sales; and,
* Strategic advantage.
Let's evaluate all four areas and examine some examples of how your peers are leveraging technology.
Talent management will always be critical in fostering the success of an accounting firm. As Baby Boomers retire and the "digital generation" emerges, firms must make investments (time and money) in advancing management to stay relevant. Moreover, transferring knowledge from retiring partners to young people is essential.
Today's talent needs technical, soft skills and IT training. Training and learning is also a two-way street, and the younger generations can teach a firm much about the application of technology.
Many partners have not been trained in management and possess few leadership skills. I hear this comment too often: "I had to figure it out, and so can they." I also hear many technicians say they don't have the time to manage and have little desire to empower people. These are poor excuses for not managing talent. The younger generation is looking for defined expectations, feedback and accountability. Not surprisingly, young people are often frustrated with the lack of accountability at the partner level.
Many tools are available to help firms in this area, including learning management systems that specify learning ladders for various levels, develop personal curricula and track progress. Other tools such as the Kolbe Index ensure that a firm has the right people on the bus and in the right seats.
PROCESS AND WORKFLOW
Firms that strive to improve processes and utilize digital workflow tools have several advantages over those that still use mostly paper and outdated processes. In reviewing tax workflow from a significant number of firms, I conclude the following:
1. There are still too many touches in the process.
2. A significant number of loops in the processes - especially during review - are also evident.
3. Firms drive errors out at the end of a process using the highest-paid personnel.
4. Processes for low-risk returns are the same or very similar to those for high-risk returns.
5. Firms are not using technology to gather and enter client information, conduct workflow and deliver files through portals.
Outsourcers in India are innovators of workflow software, with the intent of driving errors out of the process at the lowest possible level in order to reduce costs. They also rate the difficulty of each return and match the experience of the preparer with the degree of difficulty. They grade each return for instant feedback and strive to accomplish one-way workflow in order to avoid loops in the process. They also provide at least twice the amount of training as firms in the U.S.
The following technologies will increase efficiency if a firm changes its processes, trains and ensures compliance:
1. Scanning and organizing tax information into standardized PDF files with bookmarks. Use low-level personnel to scan.
2. Using OCR technology to transfer client data automatically into the tax software.
3. Using workflow applications to track documents and manage due dates.
4. Using document management to move work among offices or allow people to work from home.
5. Using portals to provide secure delivery and document storage. (Clients love portals, but many tax partners resist implementing them because this represents change.)
MARKETING AND SALES
Marketing is back in vogue as firms struggle to acquire new clients and retain profitable ones. The good news is that technology offers potential new strategies and channels that cost less than traditional methods of advertising and print. In order to leverage these tools, firm leaders must open their minds and change some existing paradigms.
Yes, this is social networking, and like older social networks, such as the Rotary, Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis, you must participate in order to benefit. The beauty of social networking is that technology allows you to manage more relationships and provide value online as well as in person.
An interactive Web site that builds communities will differentiate your firm from its competition. Content is king, and you must be willing to give content away in order to build relationships and gain market share.
Most people think of social networking as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. These all serve a purpose, but most firms and their clients will gravitate to "purpose-driven" or "filtered" networks. Do not focus on the platform, but rather on the content and experience for your clients. Portals, blogs and communities are all important components of a social networking strategy.
"CRM" is a term many firms have discussed but few have implemented with success. Cleansing and maintaining a client and prospect database requires time and discipline. New social networking tools allow this information to be provided and updated by clients and prospects, rather than the firm. Leverage your existing contacts through relationships with contacts of your contacts. The multiplier effect can be lucrative if you provide a community and experience that clients and potential clients desire.
Technology is often associated with new capabilities, but can also support a firm's leadership and relationship-building efforts.
I have mentioned a number of areas in which technology can provide a strategic advantage, but the most significant development to impact firms over the next few years will be "cloud computing" or Software-as-a-Service. SaaS will change all firms' strategies and help small firms to compete. Large firms may be challenged by resistance to change or lack of IT leaders who are willing to give up control of their data centers and large number of technical personnel. Firms are already moving to a hosted environment in tax return preparation; OCR and tax file organization; document management; e-mail, calendars and workflow; and practice management.
A digital platform reduces storage requirements, and cloud computing will reduce the number of servers and the space required to house them. Investments in bandwidth and sourcing will likely keep total technology investments at current levels, but productivity and capabilities will be significantly greater.
Firms should leverage tech investments by planning, improving processes and training personnel. "Digital" firms will be better equipped to utilize staff and provide a more satisfying client experience.
Start with a vision, develop a plan, assign responsibilities and hold people accountable.
It is about progress, not perfection.
Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.
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