CPA firms are amongst the most complex business entities, from an IT perspective, as their individual departments require unique applications and equipment to optimize each department’s production processes. The average CPA firm utilizes more than sixty applications that are constantly being updated on a wide variety of workstations, ranging from multi-monitor tax desktops to mobile workstations designed for auditors and remote consultants. Add the varying production requirements of each department’s file transfer, remote access, information security, optimized workflow, and disaster recovery, and it is easy to see that information technology impacts every aspect of firm production and needs to be integrated into the firm’s overall strategic plans. This article will outline key considerations to ensure that firms strategically optimize their IT planning.
IT Is a Management Responsibility
The first step is to recognize that IT Governance is the responsibility of owners and cannot be relegated to staff or external IT personnel. Owners today are expected to be aware of the fiduciary responsibility they have to protect the data they have been entrusted with and to oversee the IT management within the firm. From a business perspective, it is also important they are aware of today’s tools and applications improving firm production and supporting their overall strategic plans as well as those security initiatives needed to protect firm data.
Success TIP: The IT leader needs to have budget responsibility and staff assignment authority to streamline the identification, review, acquisition, and adoption of information technology with the rest of the owners of the firm. The PCPS Firm inMotion Use of Technology section contains tools including an IT Governance checklist, Strategy Template and Budget checklist to help.
The “Right” Team
The oft-used analogy of getting everyone in the right seat on the bus fits here as it takes a wide variety of business and technology skills to make the optimum CPA firm IT decisions. While internal IT personnel may know their network best, they are most often rewarded for network stability, which by default means that making any changes is risky. In today’s rapidly changing environment, it is important that firms build a team of not only internal accounting and technology expertise, but to work with external consultants, integrators, and more advanced peers to implement proven solutions making their firms be more productive.
Success TIP: Firms should develop a formal relationship with an external integrator and/or consultant to serve as a backup for internal IT personnel and to provide an independent, broader range of expertise and CPA firm experience.
Knowing What You Have
The firm must document the current network including expected capacity and replacement of equipment as well as a comprehensive listing of all software licenses. External integrators have comprehensive network documentation tools or the firm can utilize available applications such as SpiceWorks and Belarc Advisor to create the preliminary inventory listing. Aging equipment will allow the firm to predict replacement cycles for equipment (i.e. Servers-5 years, Laptops-3 years, Workstations-4 years unless they are utilized as cloud terminals in which case they would be 5-6 years). It is important to document and review all software licenses annually to ensure that all software is properly licensed and that the firm is not maintaining licenses for unused applications. This is particularly important for Adobe Acrobat, Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office as vendor software audits are becoming commonplace and carry stiff penalties for non-compliance.
Success TIP: Develop a three-year baseline budget of all current/recurring items and break out new projects and updates separately so owners can evaluate the Return on Investment (ROI) for each specific project.
Amongst the most effective way to identify IT opportunities is to discuss bottlenecks and issues causing lost productivity during a post-busy season debrief. Reviewing IT helpdesk logs for recurring problems, minutes from departmental meetings, and discussing opportunities from the firm’s overall strategic plan are a good place to start. In most firms, the strategic IT items revolve around workflow applications, knowledge/data management, remote access/cloud capabilities, security and disaster recovery.
Success TIP: Compare firm adoption of best practices against peer surveys such as the CPAFMA Paperless Benchmarks to see where the firm is on track and where IT may be falling behind the trends. You can also use the PCPS Firm inMotion Use of Technology Best Practices and Innovative Practices Checklists.
By far the most effective method to discover and understand production solutions is networking with peers that have been successful at adopting a technology and are willing to share their experience with you. If your firm is a member of a CPA Firm Association, PCPS Networking Groups, AICPA Major Firms Group, Group of G400 or CPAFMA, these groups have regular meetings of non-competing firms with the express intent of learning from each other which promotes open sharing. If your firm is not part of an association, there are industry and vendor conferences that introduce new and evolving technologies. Review the agendas from the different conferences to identify which programs best meet your firm’s needs.
Success TIP: Attend industry conferences such as AICPA ENGAGE, CPAFMA National Symposium and Accounting Technology Administrators Fly-Ins as well as accounting vendor user conferences to be exposed to the latest advancements. The Technology Selection Analysis Questionnaire can help guide a firm in deciding whether to implement a technology solution.
When we conduct a Firm Process Optimization Review the firm will typically end up with 40-60 recommendations for improving production processes. The mistake firms make is that they start on too many initiatives concurrently and then client work picks up, forcing them to drop the ball on many items and end up wasting their efforts. Each department should identify a few initiatives that solve their biggest bottlenecks with proven solutions and submit them to the owners to prioritize the order based on their impact on the firm’s overall strategic initiatives. Assigning work to your most productive users (usually also the most in demand) but limiting their weekly project focus to four hours will ensure they continue to give their clients adequate attention. We have also found it best to target projects with a very short completion cycle as projects and an ROI of less than a year, otherwise non-involved partners will delay progress.
Success TIP: Provide internal personnel working on project initiatives chargeable credit for the hours they work on firm projects so they are not penalized for what is arguably some of the most important work in the firm.
In most firms, there are personnel that are 20%-30% more productive than other members doing the same task. They have simply figured out how to effectively utilize an application or manage an engagement. If firms would allocate time to those power users to document their best practices in a written format and then provide training on that process, their efficiency could be passed onto the others. Capturing best practices promotes a firm standard (rather than individual partner standards) and allows it to be taught to others, who then can be held accountable to that standard. Should your expert leave, their knowledge does not walk out the door as it has been institutionalized.
Success TIP: In addition to documenting best practices with screen captures that show the firms specific applications, directories and file structures, the firm can video record and remotely share training sessions with applications such as GoToWebinar, Skype for Business, Zoom and Camtasia.
Post busy season is a great time to debrief the past few months and to target problem areas that provide the greatest opportunities to improve the firm. Reviewing the steps above along with the firm’s strategic plan will help your firm more effectively adopt leading best practices.
This article was originally published for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Copying or distribution without the publisher’s permission is prohibited.