The topic of the cloud dominates the trade media. There is no escaping it -- and not saying that you want to. Cloud innovations remain at the forefront of discussion for a reason, because advanced technology is a necessity to building and operating a streamlined, flexibly remote, and non-traditional firm - what I call the "New Firm." In the vanguard of this charge to the cloud are the true thought leaders -- that is, all those "crazy" practitioners who promote and celebrate a new way of doing business. These professionals are pushing a holistic approach to accomplish this, while working to help their fellow practitioners create their own New Firms.
Let's first discuss the many definitions of a "cloud" firm. It could mean simply that a firm has software and related data stored somewhere outside the office (not on the desktop). It could also mean that tax data is stored with an outsourced IT company, or that the developer performs your software updates. Finally, it could mean that your clients' data is hosted by a third-party IT company or the software developer. No matter your definition, the critical takeaway here is that cloud technologies fundamentally change the way your practice is managed and how you interact with your clients and team members. The cloud offers you freedom, while also requiring a new type of firm management. As such, moving to the cloud should not be taken lightly. There are changes (which some may view as issues) that firm leaders need to understand.
The cloud business model can be seen as disruptive to control. That is, who controls the data in the cloud -- is it the firm, the client, or a third party? It also disturbs control of the 9-to-5 workday.
Regular office hours are a thing of the past once you move to the cloud. This raises many questions about how your team members will work. Will you have office hours, or are you okay with flexible schedules as long as the work gets done? Is it okay to work remotely from an alternative device? How will you compensate employees for this "always on" position? How will your compensation plan change for this new way of working? Will you still pay an hourly rate, or for a percentage of a completed product?
There is also a perceived disruption to transparency. Everything happens to your data and to your clients' data in real time. Your clients can immediately see changes to their file. This calls for better, clearer communication with clients and setting clear expectations. Communication becomes a critical make-or-break point in managing a firm.
You will also be challenged with what is sufficient communication. Is it e-mail, phone, video conference, in-person, text or Facebook? What you communicate and how you deliver these communications will materially change, which calls for better monitoring of how team members communicate as well. How do you feel about staff having completely transparent communications with firm clients and, more important, how is all this communication shared internally?
The cloud also demands that you redefine what you are selling. Are you selling a tax return or a financial statement, or are you really selling the knowledge related to those deliverables? Are those deliverables even necessary, or is another metric or financial interpretation of real-time data more important to your customer?
When data-sharing moves to the cloud, you will find that clients ask more questions and rely on you more as their advisor (not just a number cruncher). Does this mean that you should be offering higher-priced consultative services? These are questions you will need to resolve so that you can appropriately plan pricing of your services and relay that information to your staff.
Did you notice that I have yet to mention a specific cloud app or service? This was deliberate, in order to make my point that it's not about an individual technology, but about the pace of information-sharing in the cloud world. The cloud has drastically accelerated the speed of data-sharing among clients and staff -- and this is what has created the ripple effect of disruption to traditional modes of working. The cloud renders the "old firm model" inadequate, calling for enhancements to client and staff communications, the setting of clear expectations, an improved pricing model and more.
The cloud is a great topic for discussion, but firms need to understand the ramifications of making the move in order to be prepared for the disruptions. Cloud solutions support the needs of a new generation of clients and staff -- and this is a good thing. Firms just need to invest the time in figuring out the model that is right for them and the changes required. We are all still learning, but the good thing is, we can rely on each other along the way. So, grab your favorite blanket and start to make your bed in the cloud. I'll admit, it is pretty comfy up here!
Jody Padar, CPA, MST, is CEO and principal of New Vision CPA Group, as well as an adjunct professor at Oakton Community College. She is part of the Intuit Trainer Writer Network and speaks nationally on various technologies and taxation.
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