Voices

From accounting firm to technology powerhouse

The professional services industry has proven to be incredibly successful. Accounting and consultancy firms have existed for decades, serving the public trust and upholding the integrity of our financial markets. And yet, resting on our laurels is perilous, as professional services firms face massive disruption. Machine learning, artificial intelligence and other technologies are rapidly transforming tax return preparation and the traditional financial statement audit. Change is so fast paced that accounting firms with discretionary investment dollars are placing multiple technology bets in the hope for a strategic pay-off.

In the race to ensure future relevancy in our tech world, it’s not enough to rely on firm size and geographic reach. The professional services firms of the future must be shaped by a new model for client service. In this model, professional services firms will no longer provide discrete services or offerings in isolation. Rather, firm experts will tackle broader business challenges alongside a new player — the alliance partner. More specifically, firms of the future will bring third-party software engineers to their clients and work alongside those engineers to solve client needs.

Visualize, if you will, serving a client CEO, CFO, CIO or COO, alongside engineers, programmers and other digital specialists from technology-alliance partners. As audit, tax and advisory professionals, we play an integral and unique role here – the equivalent of a Rosetta Stone, if you will.

The skills that make us successful at our firms will also make us successful as translators — professionals who can interpret our clients’ accounting, tax and consulting needs, and help solve them with technology. And we can do it in the context of the regulatory guidelines that we know so well.

Our clients are living, breathing “use cases,” and we are in the best position to bring new technology applications and services to both sides – clients and engineers. After all, the engineer often has an incomplete understanding of the business problem or need, otherwise known as the business-use case — while the client often has an incomplete knowledge of the deep accounting, tax or advisory technical requirements as well as the engineering technical requirements needed to solve the problem. The firm professional is the connective tissue between the various parts, bringing art and perspective to the science.

Without us, neither party uncovers or identifies the need fully, nor can they offer a full solution. Our technical accounting, tax and advisory skills — combined with vast business experience – make the professional services provider even more valuable in our new age. Think of the harbor pilot: Many sailors can ply open waters, but when you need someone who can bring a certain type of ship into a specific port, there are only a few who are up to the task. They know the shallows, they know the currents and they know the ships. We are those harbor pilots.

It will be up to the profession to create this future model, to proactively create the need for our own involvement. We know our clients have unexpressed, latent business needs that could be solved with a technology intervention. Our imperative is to make our own market by uncovering, communicating and solving business challenges that our clients often accept as unsolvable. Through our deep understanding of industry challenges and ability to drive business conversations, we have the opportunity to educate the market as to the solutions that we can bring when we team with alliance partners.

And an alliance partner model helps our firms grow, even as the traditional professional services model becomes productized and automated. With fewer people and more technology-driven processes, we will need to embed key intellectual property into repeatable solutions, ensuring our revenue streams stay strong. Technology partners will be part of the solution — our firms can work with technology players to solve clients’ challenges, while we retain the IP ownership.

We can’t afford to wait. Traditional service offerings that don’t involve some aspect of collaborative enhancement through technology are quickly becoming commoditized. The good news is that many firms are already creating the alliance relationships integral to the model. They have established innovation groups and strategies. They have built innovation-focused go-to-market teams. They have introduced client-facing “storefront” concepts to the market with a goal of modernizing the client experience through digital analytics and visualization. They inclusively train client-facing personnel to effectively utilize visualization and other tools with clients. And finally, they provide firmwide inclusive innovation training and digital certifications. They understand that the longevity and stability of their business depends on the ever-changing, always-diverse business challenges of clients.

For many firms, with many pieces already in place, the barrier to entry for the new strategy model is diminished. What is needed is an execution mindset and structural change to bring the model to the next level and toward quick margins.

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