Jon Baron focused on the future to kick off Thomson Reuters’ 2016 Synergy users’ conference, steering the record 1,488 attendees toward a projected vision for the year 2020 and warning them where they could fall short.

Baron, Thomson Reuters’ managing director of the professional segment of tax & accounting, shared data trends that support a digital future of 50 billion connected devices sharing 44 zettabytes of data under increasing cyber attacks. 

“We need to be concerned about security,” Baron advised, explaining that ransomware and phishing attacks are especially prevalent. “Bad actors were initially focused elsewhere and are now turning their attention to professional firms. They are after your data.”

Security is one of three major areas of focus for Thomson Reuters, Baron said, along with development and investment of current generation offerings, and the continued expansion of the Onvio cloud-based suite of solutions.

Onvio, unveiled at Synergy last year, is a focal point for Thomson Reuters as the company continues to add new products to the platform, including the recently introduced Onvio Documents, Client Center, Workpapers and Time & Billing.

As Onvio matures, Thomson Reuters is adding integration points between it and the CS Professional Suite, which the majority of customers still use. Currently, the company estimates 500 firms are using at least one module in Onvio, in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Argentina.

Thomson Reuters anticipates greater adoption, however, as cloud is no longer on the cutting edge but a trend “that was 15 years ago,” Baron said in an interview following his keynote. Firms need to catch up, he advised.

“You can’t operate in yesterday’s world, but you have to embrace new technology,” he told the crowd. “Does your firm operate in this world?”

According to internal and outside research, it appears many do not.

A 2016 UltraTax CS survey found that the majority of firms still use paper as their dominant method for sending tax returns to clients. This, despite Thomson Reuters creating the first client portal in 2001, Baron reminded the audience.

“We haven’t moved that much in 15 years,” he said, quoting U.S. Army general Eric Shinseki: “If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.”

Among those firms in danger of irrelevance are those that fail to meet client expectations in this era of digital consumerism. Clients and prospects are already online, he stressed, and on average spend 3.2 hours on the web, while 74 percent are on mobile.

“How you interact, and how things appear to clients are more important than it’s ever been in the past,” Baron said, explaining that customers today require access, a smart experience, seamless collaboration and unprecedented insights. Onvio aims to deliver these via the cloud, with an upcoming dashboard planned to further enhance the user experience.

Thomson Reuters is also offering that cloud-based access in its new online audit solution Checkpoint Engage, which it introduced at the conference Wednesday.

Additionally, the company is experimenting with next-level automation, including cognitive capabilities, Baron shared, to help firms maintain their foothold in “the relationship business.”

Big data and machine learning are also areas of continued exploration.

Firms that lag behind on these and other technologies risk more than irrelevance, Baron reiterated, with the accounting profession’s competition for talent and the encroaching “Boomer Bubble” (65 percent of partners are over 50 today, compared to 52 percent in 2005) making technology a crucial weapon in the retention of qualified professionals.

“The overall turnover rate is way too high for our profession,” Baron said.

To help reverse the trend, firms can no longer delay progression.

“We encourage them to jump in,” he elaborated when asked how he would advise laggard firms. “To consider how they interact with businesses and companies, and understand how the consumer approach of today impacts their firms. If they don’t move in that direction, firms may fall by the wayside.”

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