CPAs looking to work more efficiently and remain both competitive and connected with their offices and clients are making the most of tools available now -- despite the fact that some of these devices may well be replaced or become obsolete over the next five years.

With the torrid pace at which technology is evolving, what is popular or seemingly innovative now may not necessarily be over the next few years, so many practitioners are doing what they can to plan for their future by using the tools currently available.

Many of these devices are becoming more essential to how CPAs work, in that they allow them to be more mobile and collaborative, and to utilize systems and software that are hosted or in the cloud.

Five years ago, few if any CPAs were paying attention to tablets and what they could do for their business -- which, to be fair, was somewhat limited at the time. The tablet of five years ago was little more than a laptop with a movable, non-interactive screen and virtually none of the connectivity or versatility of today's offerings.

While many firms continue to experiment with current tablet technology, the devices are fast improving, and are finding their way into meeting rooms and client engagements. Today's tablets offer dozens of apps that keep practitioners connected to their offices and the solutions that help the firm run.

 

GREATER ADOPTION IN THE FIRM

Akron, Ohio-based BCG & Co. is finding that more of its partners and managers are adopting the iPad with the increased support of the firm's IT department.

Initially utilized for checking e-mail and general consumption purposes, the tablet's use has grown to include more essential tasks. "Our managers and partners are using the iPad extensively for note-taking and presentations; whether it's public speaking or proposals, it makes it easy to walk to a stage or into a conference room and quickly call things up," explained BCG managing director David Brockman. "There are lots of meetings now where partners don't even show up with paper. We're looking to move things more towards the cloud, like CRM and our practice management system, so if it's Web-based, it can easily be accessible using an iPad."

Brockman is also seeing more of his 84-member staff become increasingly mobile, and feels that any device that helps them stay connected to the office and clients is paramount to the future of his firm.

"We can attract and retain talent that need to work outside the office," he said. "Keeping in contact, letting people know what's going on, tracking things with our clients, and finding out whether a piece of information is there from wherever we are -- these are the things that matter going forward."

Even smaller firms are finding that having the right devices to keep them connected to their files and office systems -- which are moving at varying paces towards the cloud -- is critical to their practices.

Greenville, S.C.-based Montgomery & Co. may only have a staff of 10, but it serves clients all over the world, and being mobile and in the cloud are both paramount to serving its base.

The firm is also moving towards being a virtual and more paperless office; as such, managing partner Joe Montgomery sees devices such as tablets, portable scanners, and smart phones playing a larger role in the future of his practice. "Tablets for sure will be key to remotely access my desktop, while my iPhone is great for utilizing our mobile practice management system to connect with clients wherever I am," said Montgomery. "Clients are expecting you to be available 24/7, and having the right device is essential in being able to do that. We have also put big money into [portable] scanners, though I don't think we're quite at the point where we can totally eliminate the paper; even with quad monitors, it's going to take some time."

 

MORE IS BETTER

The use of multiple monitors is increasing in importance at those firms that are committed to paper reduction, as well as increased mobility. As monitor technology improves with the release of less expensive, higher-resolution models, many practitioners also anticipate that they will be a regular part of client visits.

The staff at Duluth, Ga.-based Moore Stephens Tiller has been using multiple monitors both in the office and out in the field for several years, but until recently, the quality of the monitors has been inconsistent.

"Using multiple monitors is not new, but what is new is they are getting bigger and more affordable. Lots of firms are doing 17-to-19-inch monitors; cost is a factor but prices and options have changed for the better. The standard for our staff is 22 [inches], while most partners have 24-inch screens," said Moore Stephens Tiller's director of technology, Barry Brown, who in a short time has seen notable changes in how he and the firm's staff work.

"We've been taking monitors into the field for a while, but we're seeing a transition in that, too. As an auditor, I used to carry computers, scanners, printers, and client files, and had to buy huge containers to go in the field," said Brown. "Now a typical engagement will be a laptop, a portable scanner, and a 15-inch USB flat panel [monitor]. Those are still low-resolution and relatively expensive, but we're starting to see improvements."

Brown added that ultrabooks, which are essentially lighter, more powerful laptops with higher-resolution monitors, are also gaining popularity with his staff. In fact, noted technology consultant Randy Johnston goes so far as to say, "Notebook computers are dead," and ultrabooks and ultralight computers will become more common -- inside the workplace, and out.

Some, like CPA Randy Crews, who runs a two-person practice in McAllen, Texas, believe that the sooner practitioners can adopt new technology, the better they can compete in the market, particularly as the pace of change may not agree with the industry's current decision-making process in regards to technology.

"Even what's here now will be far advanced in the next five years, and accountants need to evolve from how they've been doing things. They just aren't seeing the benefit of what these tools are, and moving beyond what they've been doing for the past 20 years," said Crews. "My firm does the equivalent of what many midsized firms do because I'm using the most up-to-date technology now. As long as I have some kind of portable device, I can do what I need to from anywhere, and I have clients across the country because of it."

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