The role of CIO at top-performing accounting firms has widened substantially beyond IT. Innovation and both digital and business transformation are becoming primary responsibilities, according to a recent Gartner study.

We see this trend from our CIO community as well as our consulting practice. This makes sense, as firms’ focus shifts from just IT delivery toward business leadership. As firms digitize more of their processes, part of the CIO’s role is orchestrating IT.

This is due to the convergence of multiple technologies, shifting expectations, and new firm objectives. CIOs are spending more time on business leadership than they were just three years ago. Your first question may be “Why?” Your second question is likely, “Is this the CIO’s role?”

There are many good reasons for this trend and there are necessary organizational changes for any business, including CPA firms. There was a day when a partner with an interest in IT could lead the technology team, and many did so on a part-time basis while continuing to manage a book of business.

The role of CIO is critical today to all firms, as is the reporting chain of command. Each firm’s management team has unique abilities, but the trend is for more CIOs to report directly to the CEO. This causes the CIO to get closer to the ideal mix between IT-related issues and business outcomes. In other words, there is true integration between the firm’s vision, strategic plan and technology.

CIOs are being asked to achieve revenue growth and lead the digital and business transformation. If CIOs want to remain relevant, they must align their activities with the business priorities of the firm. Therefore, it is necessary for the CEO to ensure the execution of visioning and strategic planning processes.

The CIO should participate in visioning and strategic planning, just like the CEO should participate in IT strategy and planning. This also points out the importance of the CIO having a seat in the boardroom and the related benefits of alignment, prioritization, focus, budgeting, reporting, and building the right teams for priority projects.

The closer the alignment between the CIO and CEO, the faster things happen. Stephen M. R. Covey refers to this phenomenon as “the Speed of Trust,” where the organization receives a dividend in time and money when the trust level is high. Firms that lack trust tend to pay a tax, in that projects take longer and cost more.

The digital practice is mainstream, and CIOs are scaling business initiatives so that they can provide long-term economies of scale and broader scope (higher-valued advisory services).

Communications and culture are very important in driving innovation to gain competitiveness. CIOs must lead and educate while knowing that processes need to change across the entire organization to leverage technology.

This requires supportive firm leadership and a culture built for transformation. The firm’s culture must embrace life-long learning, change, collaboration, diversity and inclusion.

Mindset is as important as skill sets and toolsets, so don’t disregard the fact that disruption can be both good and bad. Here are just a few of the technologies that are converging to disrupt accounting firms’ processes and services:

  • Business analytics (auditing, accounting and predictive analytics);
  • Digital marketing (more of the IT budget is going to marketing and sales);
  • Cloud services (the client experience is increasing in importance, as is integration);
  • Cybersecurity and privacy (CPA firms are rich targets); and,
  • Sourcing (many firms may outsource the transactional business while packaging compliance and higher-level CFO and advisory services).

Digitization of processes and documents allows CIOs and their IT organizations to cope with rapid change. Digital and business transformation require alignment of the firm’s vision, a plan or playbook, collaborative teams to execute, and training to scale across your entire firm. This is a journey and not an event.

Here is a list of action items:

1. View your CIO and technology as a strategic asset.

2. Document your vision and update your strategic plan.

3. Manage and leverage technology through alignment with the firm’s strategic plan.

4. Algorithms are becoming increasingly important. Utilize machine learning and robotics to expedite and improve processes.

5. Diversify your talent pool and utilize collaborative teams.

6. Create a culture of innovation and trust.

7. Adopt effective processes and continue to train.

These steps will factor into your continued success and future readiness. They require courage, commitment, capability and confidence.