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Rick Telberg

Four New Rules for the Tech-Savvy CPA

Plus: Key trends to watch. How tech-smart is your firm? Join the study; get the answers.

May 19, 2008
by Rick Telberg/At Large

No CPA would even think of trying to do business without a computer or a mobile phone today.

So why then aren’t more CPAs taking a strategic approach to their technology investments?

After all, most growth oriented accounting firms are already spending five percent to 10 percent of their revenues on IT hardware and applications, according to most studies. My own research suggests that barely one in 10 percent firms is following a written, strategic technology plan. For most finance and accounting organizations, that’s like piloting a ship without charts.

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But where do you begin? For that, we went to John Higgins, CPA, CITP. John is a strategic advisor to CPA firms through his company, CPA Crossings LLC in Rochester, Minn. He is also a past chairman of the Michigan Association of CPAs and a member of the AICPA Business & Industry Hall of Fame.

After talking with Higgins, we can boil it down to four rules and four trends.

Four Tech Rules

Rule 1: Match technology budgets to your long-term strategy. Identify, analyze and prioritize the technology initiatives that are required to achieve your firm’s strategic goals and then assess the state of your firm’s current technology. Finally, perform a Gap Analysis to determine where your firm currently stands, relative to where it wants to go and the technology required to get there. Importantly, Higgins adds, “A technology plan should also include a timeline and a budget.”

Rule 2: Think digital first. And Higgins doesn’t use the term “paperless.” “Rather than referring to a paperless system, I prefer to use the term ‘digital practice model.’” This means that a firm creates digital files and keeps these files digital. “Some firms define themselves as paperless because they scan their clients’ tax returns into PDF files,” Higgins notes. “Yet, there may still be stacks of paper in their offices.”

The efficiencies of a digital office are numerous, including having access to information immediately, accessing information by multiple people simultaneously and automating routine tasks. “A firm may experience an increase in efficiency between 15 percent and 30 percent using a digital practice model,” Higgins says. “Due to the staffing shortage, it’s very important for firms to be able to produce the same amount of work in less time.”

Rule 3: Make someone accountable. Not every firm needs, or can afford, a full-time IT manager. It often depends upon the size of the firm. Firms with 15 or fewer employees usually have someone who manages the relationships with outside technology vendors and consultants. It’s usually someone on the administrative or professional staff. Mid-sized firms with between 15 and 100 employees usually have someone designated as a network administrator. The largest firms — those with more than 100 employees — will have an information technology director or chief information officer. “This person,” says Higgins, “should have experience in managing people since they will have a team of people reporting to them and they must understand the business of accounting in order to be successful.”

Rule 4: Get the most from what you have. “Firms need to utilize their current technology investments,” says Higgins. Many do not know about all of the capabilities of the hardware and software that they already have. With a good technology plan, firms can spend funds on only what they need and then get the most out of what they have. “I’ve met with a lot of firms that have purchased various software programs over the years that are not integrated into their processes on a coordinated basis,” Higgins says.

Four Tech Trends to Watch

That said, the tech landscape changes rapidly. Higgins is keeping an eye on four emerging trends that every CPA firm should also be watching.

Trend 1: Scanning. Most every CPA office now has a document scanner for creating digital copies of physical documents for electronic filing. But the technology is getting smarter. For example, Higgins, says, “you can scan a W-2 and the technology will recognize the W-2 and place the income amount automatically into the person’s tax return.” However, he remains less than completely comfortable with the reliability of the technology as it stands today. “But we’re headed in the right direction.”

Trend 2: Web conferencing. With gas prices at or above $4 per gallon, there are tremendous advantages to being able to meet remotely with clients, whether it’s across town or across the country. “Everyone can view documents simultaneously online,” Higgins says. “This will also be beneficial for multi-office firms with both client and internal meetings.”

Trend 3: XBRL. With the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission mandate for financial filings to conform to the new computerized data language, CPAs need to start boning up.

Trend 4: Web-hosted solutions. Web-based applications, also called software-as-a-service (SaaS), offer several big advantages to software-on-a-CD, including the shortening of implementation time, the elimination of high start-up costs, as well as providing a high level of security that firms cannot replicate internally, according to Higgins.

With these Four Tech Rules and Four Tech Trends to watch, your accounting organization can start taking a strategic approach to technology spending.

HOW TECH-SAVVY IS YOUR FIRM? Join the study; get the answers.

LEAVE A COMMENT: Suggestions, questions, rants or raves? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2008 CPA Trendlines/BSG LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission. First published by the AICPA.

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.