You have just completed your annual firm partner meeting, and the decision was made to move forward with the selection and implementation of a content management system. You want to ensure success. What are the critical factors? Why do some firm's succeed while others fail? Can anything be done up front in order to ensure success?Accounting firms are not unique when it comes to the success or failure of information technology projects. Firms tend to make the same mistakes as large companies, and particularly the federal government.

Management tends to focus on the cost of the hardware and software, while discounting implementation and their organization's ability to accept change ... significant change. The majority of projects are inadequately planned, staffed and executed. Therefore, the return on investment is generally less, the investment is greater and the timeline is longer than originally anticipated.

The following list of facts may help you reduce the risks associated with your project.

1. Projects are viewed as IT projects, rather than firm projects. Management and end users must take ownership of the projects. Too often, projects such as content management or engagement management are viewed as IT projects, and end users are not committed enough to make the required changes in processes, training and behavior.

2. Lack of a written plan and budget. Agree on your objectives before you start the project. Take the time to identify your top three objectives, and then focus your resources. It is important to take the time to build consensus before starting. Once the project is started, it may be too late.

3. Firm leaders lack knowledge of IT's role in the process. Too often, firm management is too busy to spend the necessary time in planning, managing the project and insuring that proper resources are committed. Content management should not be led by IT, clerical or administrative personnel. According to the Sedona Guidelines (www.sedonaconference.org), content management requires firm management, records management, legal counsel and IT support as part of the project team.

4. Politics. Every organization has politics, and firms are not exempt. Departmental approaches, as opposed to enterprise ones, to major projects can result in short-term solutions that lack integration with other core systems.

5. Lack of budget control by the project manager. Even relatively simple projects can expand in scope, especially if proper planning is not done in advance.

The keys to success are planning, people and processes. It sounds simple, but often is very complex in many firms, due to the reporting structure and timing of the projects.

Generally, significant projects are decided upon after the end of the busy season, with a desired implementation prior to the start of next busy season. Large projects like engagement management or content management generally require at least one or more business cycles to fully implement and start receiving the anticipated return on investment.

Too often, the decision by the partners to fund the project is delayed until the fall, and there is not adequate time or resources to properly implement before the next busy season.

The following strategies should reduce or eliminate many of the risks, and prepare you with realistic expectations:

1. Name a project manager who has responsibility and authority. This person should report directly to the chief executive or chief operating officer. They must have the authority to manage the team. Project management skills are more important than IT skills.

2. Name a qualified task force or project management team. This team should be representative of management, end users, internal IT and resources such as legal, records management and consultants. Don't be afraid to utilize external resources. They tend to ask questions like: Why, how, who, when, and what are you trying to accomplish? Internal team members also tend to take their assignments more seriously if the firm is committed to providing the necessary resources.

3. Develop a written plan and budget. The planning process is as important as the plan. The process should provide communications to management, the task force members and end users. It should also identify the primary strategic objectives, measurements of success, initiatives, due dates and responsible parties. Prepare a reasonable timeline with appropriate milestones. Granted, many firms are not accustomed to long-term projects and dealing with both internal and external resources. Use project planning tools along with graphic charts so all stakeholders can quickly understand the scope and duration of the project.

4. Review your existing standards, processes and procedures. Re-engineer in order to take advantage of the technology. This requires innovation and new thinking. First, document your existing processes using block diagrams. These diagrams often show material differences between management's perception and back-office reality. Look for ways to streamline and eliminate unnecessary steps.

Use people from outside the process. It is difficult to change a process if you are part of the process. Document your new standards, policies and procedures with the intention that they will be a work in progress.

5. Provide adequate training and learning opportunities. Training and learning are mandatory, and require the commitment of firm management and owners. The process chain is only as strong as the weakest link. If partners are the weak link, it spells trouble. Conduct the training in two-hour sessions prior to, during and after project roll-out.

6. Phase the project. Success breeds success and increases confidence. Firm management and the project manager must be positive spokespeople for the project, even during the difficult times. Don't be afraid to test your new standards, policies and procedures with a pilot project. However, at some point everyone must join the team in order to deploy the project across the firm and insure a return on the investment. The size and culture of the firm will be one of the primary factors determining how to phase the project.

7. Expect some pain and deal with it. Change is difficult for most people, especially the talent pool in accounting firms. I hear the question: "We are making more money than ever - why do we have to change?" The answer is simple: in order to compete. Talent is scarce, and technology must be employed as the accelerator.

8. View your vendor as a business partner. Vendors are interested in your success and cannot utilize their resources to your advantage without your cooperation and honest communication. They have identified best practices, developed training/learning materials and can be a valuable resource. Be sure to involve them in your successes and your challenges.

In conclusion, IT projects are firm projects. They require planning, people and processes to increase performance. Firms that view technology as a strategic asset have less difficulty than those that view technology as overhead. Leadership is critical, and most projects require vision and innovation.

In order to grow at more than an incremental rate, firms must leverage technology and establish good working relationships with vendors. The decision is yours, and success is attainable if you properly plan, staff and re-engineer your processes to leverage the technology.

L. Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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