by John M. Covaleski

Las Vegas - The American Institute of CPAs’ 2003 Information Technology conference ushered in several new technological twists for practitioners, and offered a new turn in the future of the institute’s Certified Information Technology Professional designation.

The institute’s 23rd annual technology show, held here at the Bellagio casino-hotel, was also one of the largest in recent years, with 650 attendees, up from about 500 at last year’s Tech 2002 in Washington. It featured about 50 vendor-exhibitors, also an increase from last year’s show.

But the biggest changes from past years may have been the appearance of new vendor-exhibitors, new technologies, and continuing professional education training sessions that included topics not addressed, or not covered as thoroughly, at previous shows.

“You will be sprinkled with technology pixie dust here, so be open to the possibilities,” conference chair Jennifer Wilson told attendees on the opening day. “Our goal is to give you the latest and greatest, and make you able to maximize the technology used by your firms.”

Reiterating Wilson’s theme, general session speaker Randy Johnston, an executive vice president with technology trainers/consultants K2 Enterprises, said, “Tech spending is flat and will stay that way for the near term, so we have to get by and get more from what we have today.”

As in past years’ shows, about half of the practitioners on hand were attending their first AICPA technology conference. Unlike past years, however, Wilson noted that many of this year’s first-timers came from non-technical practice areas, such as audit.

“The show is attracting people who are not heavy ‘techies,’ but who are in accounting and other areas, and realize that the technology used there is much more pervasive,” she said.

The best-attended sessions included one on information technology security CPE training, in which David Cieslak, an Encino, Calif., CPA and technology consultant, cited high levels of security breaches at businesses nationwide and urged CPAs to step forward to protect their firms and their clients. (For more, see “CPA concerns growing over privacy and security issues,” p. 3.)

Also well-attended were sessions on document management and the “paperless office” - which made the case that less paper can mean more profits and better customer service - and XBRL, the business report version of the XML Internet-based programming standard.

One CPE session covered an AICPA committee’s work on a new business-reporting model that will rely heavily on new technologies. “XBRL and XML will be what makes this happen,” said session trainer Roman Kepczyk, the AICPA’s IT chairman.

The committee is developing a model that will focus on areas that were not covered in the current model - like the reliability of information systems, and non-financial indicators, such as the company’s market share and product development work -and will ultimately improve the quality and timeliness of the reporting. “We want to give investors and analysts the same information that management has,” Kepczyk said.

The committee, comprised of practitioners, a regulator, and members from government, private industry and academia, will develop the model over the next year, he said.

Other technologies that grabbed a higher profile at this year’s show were wireless mobile systems, forensic detection systems, supply chain management and knowledge management, to name a few.

Wireless events included a CPE session dedicated exclusively to Wi-Fi, and the first appearances of wireless technology vendors Sprint and Nextel at an AICPA tech show. Both companies had booths where they displayed their latest offerings for accountants.

Another prominent vendor that was new to the AICPA show this year was hardware giant Hewlett-Packard. It promoted its pricing discount program for CPAs and co-hosted a new feature at this year’s show - a cybercafe floor booth that helped practitioners go online to access their businesses.

The show’s biggest non-agenda event was the announcement that a CITP Retention Committee is developing a business plan to keep that designation alive as part of the AICPA. In April, the institute began the process of researching new strategies for the CITP and two other designations that it had created but had trouble supporting due to limited resources.

“CITP is not dead,” Mike Dickson, a Columbus, Ohio, CPA and CITP holder, announced during a presentation. Dickson, who recently became chairman of the Ohio Society of CPAs, is part of a retention committee that also includes Steven Head, a Charlotte, N.C., practitioner, and Susan Bradley, a partner with Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun in Fresno, Calif.

Dickson and committee chair Bradley said that their business plan will call for creating additional marketing literature and tools for CITP holders, while also helping the designation program break even financially in three years. They plan to have designation-holders volunteer services to help the AICPA defray the designation’s administration costs.

A week after Tech 2003, the group began the first of a series of online “town meetings” to gather input for their business plan from the approximately 500 CITP holders.

Dickson said that preliminary considerations have included the idea of assessing each CITP holder $3,800, but said that “would be totally unworkable,” because “any significant increase in fees could only come after we create additional perceived value in the designation.”

Bradley and Dickson expect to submit their business plan to the institute’s National Accreditation Committee, which would then pass it to the AICPA Council prior to its fall meeting, where it will consider new strategies for the CITP and the institute’s Personal Financial Specialist and Accredited in Business Valuation designations.

The AICPA has ordered its staff not to comment on any of the designations until after the Fall Council meeting; however, there are indications that it is receptive to keeping the CITP alive and within the institute.

AICPA senior vice president Alan Anderson gave the CITP a vote of confidence during a speech in which he discussed the AICPA’s work on the new business-reporting model.

“The skill set of the CITP could help move this forward,” he said. Separately, the institute confirmed that, if it ends its association with CITP, it would refund the application fees paid by all new applicants to the program.

Dickson said that his business plan will not include the Information Technology Alliance, a consortium of business technology consultants, CPA firm’s IT managers, and product vendors. Many practitioners had expected the ITA to step in to manage the CITP, but Dickson and Bradley said that the ITA’s desire to make the designation available to non-CPAs is not acceptable in the near term.

They said that the AICPA has indicated that it is opposed to allowing non-CPAs in the program, and that it is critical to keep the designation within the AICPA. “The CITPers themselves have overwhelmingly said that they want to keep this in the AICPA,” said Bradley.

However, Dickson said, “Long-term, we could re-address the issue about having non-CPAs, provided that they work for CPA firms or report to CPAs. But that is not a short-term intention.”

Before the CITP Retention Committee’s plans surfaced, ITA president Ron Eagle said that the alliance could step in to manage the CITP if the AICPA drops its association with it. The ITA, a CITP proponent since that designation was created in 2001, ceased being a membership section of the AICPA last year.

The ITA’s departure was a byproduct of a post-Enron phenomenon - the AICPA’s increased focus on traditional accounting services versus the ITA’s consulting focus.

Tech 2003 also focused more on traditional services and internal firm management than it did on external consulting. Just 12 of the 45 sessions dealt with external consulting topics, and, in some cases, those topics also applied to firms’ internal operations, such as IT security and two sessions concerning Linux, the software operating system that is in competition with Microsoft’s Windows, and one session on the new Windows XP.

Technology consulting-related sessions included a panel discussion by key executives with the most prominent vendors of accounting software for middle-market companies. The executives, whose vendor-employers all use accountants as resellers and product consultants, vowed strong support for their respective channels, and noted that their products are getting more sophisticated as additional functions are being integrated into core accounting modules.

“Integration, integration, integration - the idea is to put all the applications in a central repository,” said Zach Nelson, chief executive of application service provider NetLedger Inc. He also attributed 30 percent of the company’s growth to its reseller channel.

Liz Marenakos, of nonprofit industry software specialist Blackbaud, noted that her firm continues to recruit resellers after doubling the size of its channel in the past year. Its newest channel members in-clude the Houston-based ac-counting firm PKF Texas.

Several executives pledged to provide additional marketing support to help their resellers cope with the soft market. Michael Bertini, chief executive of Minneapolis-based Open Systems Inc., said, “We see our resellers struggling to get new clients.”

Panelists also included Murray Aston, chief executive of Softline Software, the parent of the developers of BusinessVision and AccountMate accounting software. The company’s BusinessVision group used the conference to announce a new Accounting Partner Program, which is designed specifically for accountants who want to resell or advise clients on the company’s flagship product BusinessVision 32.

That panel also included Steve Yulga, newly named chief executive of AccTrak21 USA, upon the late June departure of the group’s former management team, led by Wayne Harding. Harding had previously worked for the CPA2Biz Web portal and the former Great Plains software company, which is now part of Microsoft Corp.

Harding and his former team left AccTrak21 after its Australian parent struck a deal to have tax preparation software developer ATX, of Caribou, Maine, take part in distributing the product.

Yulga said that he is also recruiting new partners to AccTrak21, whose flagship product is accounting software integrated with online banking, electronic commerce, manufacturing, distribution and business-analysis applications.

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