The role of IT professionals in CPA firms is going to see drastic changes in the coming years. Web-based solutions are continually improving, and providers are starting to figure out pricing models that adequately scale. It might take several years before firms move the majority (or all) of their applications to the cloud, but the writing is on the wall that things are headed that way. So what impact does this have on IT professionals in the firm? It would be naive to think there won't be any reduction in the number of IT professionals required, but there will be an ongoing need for IT. The role will be significantly different though.
With few to no applications and servers to support in-house, the IT professional's role will be less about desktop support and troubleshooting servers and more about strategy and communication. The requisite skill-set will change, and those who adapt by developing adequate skills will survive. Those who do not risk being left behind. Professional development will need to focus on management, leadership and communication rather than obtaining technology certifications.
Understanding the way people work and the steps they take to complete everyday tasks will become a huge part of the IT Professional's role. This understanding will be the key driver for strategic direction in terms of tools that will improve workflow. Gaining this understanding will require more proactive measures than in the past. IT will be expected to be ahead of the curve rather than reacting to problems that pop up and become unbearable for the end user. Sitting down, watching people work and asking the right questions will be vital.
Alignment with Training & Learning Professional
As the IT professional transforms into a facilitator for client-facing professionals to work more efficiently, connections with Training & Learning Professionals must strengthen. I don't see the need for someone who "gets it" when it comes to technology going away, but I do see it being much different. Interfaces will change, and new tools will replace in-house technologies that have been used for years. This will require someone who understands both processes and new technology tools to educate the firm about getting work done.
Benefits of the Cloud
There are a number of benefits to moving applications and infrastructure out of the firm, and I believe the following are the top value propositions for moving to the cloud.
- Leveraging integrated applications and web 2.0 technology provides firms with better search, reporting and collaboration capabilities.
- Non-value-add maintenance and troubleshooting becomes someone else's problem. Rebooting servers, applying patches and monitoring server performance are now performed by someone else. This frees up the IT professional to focus on innovation and more strategic, value-add activities.
- The monthly IT spend smoothes out. It is much easier to budget for your annual IT expenditures when you have a set monthly fee instead of trying to figure out complex licensing arrangements and when those charges will hit.
- The IT team will spend less time in development and implementation and more time leveraging the power of solutions that have already been developed. Why recreate the wheel when a proven solution already exists?
Concerns About the Cloud
This is a new frontier for most firms, so I don't want to ignore concerns – real or imagined.
- Security – Time and time again we hear questions about the security of hosting facilities. Some firms truly believe they are more secure than a Microsoft or Google data center. They point out that these are more high profile targets. Ask yourself if your firm is a SAS70 certified data center. I'm guessing the answer is no!
- Pricing – Providers are still figuring out a pricing structure that makes it cost effective for large firms to move to the cloud. However, many are making great strides.
- Being held hostage – Many are concerned that once they move their data to a hosted environment, they will not have control of that data. This is a valid concern and should be one of the first questions you ask a potential hosting partner.
- Less flexibility – When you move to a hosted solution, you may lose some flexibility you would have if you had systems in-house. Too often firms get caught up on minor functionalities that they could learn to do without. If an existing solution meets 95% of your needs, doesn't the cost savings (and decreased frustration) outweigh the 5% of features you would give up? Sometimes the answer will be "no," but I don't think that is the norm.
It Can Be Done
Many IT professionals are concerned that a move to the cloud will put them out of a job. I don't believe this will be the case. There will be a major shift in focus and new skill-sets will need to be developed, but the change can be made. Our own Eric Benson is a perfect case study of transforming his role at Boomer Consulting, Inc. We hope to be 100% hosted within the next few months, and Eric has played a major role in that strategy. When we began this journey, Eric could have easily resisted the move and seen it as a threat to his job. Instead, he embraced the change and began adapting his focus and skills. Today he has time to think more strategically, has improved his communication skills and has increased the value he provides to the company enormously. We'd much rather have him focused on our company's strategic roadmap than providing desktop support and troubleshooting servers. And, that's what Eric prefers too.