[IMGCAP(1)]Technology is changing the way businesses operate in ways that are unexpected and unpredictable, but that are essential for continued success and competitiveness.

Business operations never stop, and with the increasing implementation of online options and 24/7 service or delivery options, it is more imperative than ever before for organizations to fully integrate information technology resources with business operations. IT, as is widely known, is not inexpensive and often requires the coordination and buy-in of multiple levels of management.

Virtually every financial professional in the workforce has experienced an IT upgrade that does not go according to plan. Cost overruns, missed deadlines and end results that do not match either stated goals or organizational needs are unfortunately all too common. Instead of proceeding with business as usual, however, this dilemma represents an opportunity for accounting professionals who are willing to step up and engage proactively in IT upgrades and other projects.

The question, as it always is when a functional area attempts to expand influence and operational expertise, is how exactly to undertake such an endeavor. Accountants and financial professionals are well-regarded and respected as technical experts with regards to financial compilation, reporting and interpretation, but why are such skills sets limited to a few silos of business management?

In addition to focusing on IT initiatives and projects, accounting professionals are increasingly involved in a wide range of initiatives and projects related to risk management, capital planning and stakeholder engagement. Quantitative analysis, business planning and the ability to communicate across lines of both operational management and financial management are essential skills that should be applied to the widest set of business projects and decisions as possible.

Accountants, in particular, are tasked with a variety of roles that align closely with IT initiatives and projects. One obvious example is internal control, ranging from preparing financial statement to monitoring the validity and replicability of procedures related to payroll, billing and inventory, which are an important part of any business. Whether the organization in question is a service business or a goods business is irrelevant, as the purpose of accounting and financial systems is to translate operational data into financial information.

With that sentiment in mind, accountants should propose and advocate for themselves to be involved in IT initiatives and upgrades. Financial systems, in essence, are what drive internal controls, inventory management, and the method in which operational results are converted to financial information.

Translation and conversion are absolutely essential to the management of any business. Without information and technology systems that operate in the way management requires and produce information in the format required by both internal and external stakeholders, achieving business success will be increasingly difficult. Since accounting and other financial professionals are tasked almost exclusively with the responsibility to manage this information process, it is a logical next step for accounting and finance to be business partners in IT projects. Taking a more active role in more projects might be the last thing that already busy and harried professionals want to hear, but it is essential for both personal and professional growth to continuously seek new areas and opportunities within which existing skills can be applied, or new ones can be learned.

What types of projects should accountants be involved in? Accountants and other financial professionals are obviously most familiar with the financial reporting and preparation process, so it makes sense that such projects would provide a toehold for branching into IT projects and work.

Advising, helping develop and assisting in the testing of financial reporting and budgeting tools such as SAP and Hyperion are ways in which accountants can put the value they deliver on full display. In addition to having an opportunity to showcase their knowledge, such projects provide CPAs an opportunity to have a proverbial seat at the table. By advising IT professionals, the project management team, as well as any external resources brought in to advise or supervise the project, accountants can gain an opportunity to help design the very systems they, in turn, are responsible for.

Perhaps more importantly, by demonstrating a willingness and aptitude for organizational initiatives, CPAs involved in such projects have demonstrable proof of the varying levels of expertise accountants can bring to the organization. 

Once they begin working hand-in-hand with IT, senior project management professionals, and external advisors, the opportunities for accountants are virtually limitless. Risk management, capital modeling, customer relationship management software, stakeholder engagement and a whole assortment of other managerial tasks are being complemented, disrupted and transformed by technological tools and assets.

CPAs are increasingly involved in a wider range of activities, but without involvement in the creation and implementation of the financial systems accounts they are held responsible for, accountants will inevitably be reacting to change, instead of leading it. Volunteering and seeking out opportunities to engage and work with IT provides CPAs with opportunities to refine their existing skills, develop new skills, and continue to add value to both their organizations and the profession. Partnering with IT and learning such skills also enable CPAs to reinforce their position as value-adding partners, as well as solidify their proverbial seat at the table.

Sean Stein Smith, MBA, CPA, CMA, CGMA, is senior accountant in environmental services at United Water in Harrington Park, N.J., and an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

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