by L. Gary Boomer, Visionary & Strategist
The year 2020 will go down as one of interruption, disruption and innovation. Your mindset determines whether this is good or bad. I choose to focus on the positives, although I must admit I am a realist, and it has taken some adjusting. One silver lining is we will be more future-ready as a profession due to the accelerated transformation. As proof, many firms are experiencing their best year ever. What have we learned?
Transformation is exponential change, not incremental. Exponential change is best explained as something that shows 10X potential or resulting change. I choose to focus on areas that most people in the accounting profession already identified as challenges or obstacles prior to the pandemic:
Travel (time and expense)
More productive meetings
Over the past 20 years, we've assisted larger firms in developing technology and practice management strategy, including talent, processes and growth. Many of these items have been on firms' priority lists for several years, while others have become apparent more recently. A good example is leveraging a virtual workforce. Within 48 hours, during the busiest time of the year, firms become virtual. Some firms had plans, technology and people already in place. For them, the sudden pandemic was less disruptive than for those who had perhaps thought about a virtual workforce, but due to personal preference or procrastination, hadn't acted or adequately prepared.
Most CPAs agree things will be different going forward, and we are still establishing the new normal on a daily basis. With this said, let's explore some of those exponential changes in more detail.
It's impossible to leverage technology and other resources with paper in the processes. Most firms say they are paperless. In reality, there is less paper, but many of their operations are still paper-based. To compete and leverage a remote workforce, it is imperative to focus on standardizing and digitizing processes. This means eliminating paper. Three areas firms have seen exponential improvement in are:
Billing and collections
Tax return preparation, including the aggregation of data and delivery of the final products
These are examples of processes that have improved. Still, there are many more that can be automated utilizing digital workflow, artificial intelligence and machine learning (e.g., digital signatures, proposal writing and audit work papers and analytics).
With the large number of retiring professionals and the need to train younger employees, knowledge transfer has appeared on many firms' strategic plans. Some partners have developed solutions to capture knowledge. Yet few have leveraged technology to its potential due to the lack of standard processes and training.
Most CPAs have been exposed to video conferencing during the past few months, but surprisingly few are utilizing this technology to its potential. Good examples are virtual client and team meetings. Many accountants aren't aware of Zoom's polling, breakout session, transcripts and recording features.
At Boomer Consulting, we determined that the technology should not be the focus of our virtual consulting and communities. We immediately assigned a second person to each virtual consulting engagement. These people typically are project managers and newer consultants. Their primary focus is to "produce the client experience." A substantial unexpected benefit is they have learned from the experienced consultants and clients. They have also been quicker to adapt to new technology and more innovative. Two examples besides Zoom are Miro (a virtual whiteboard with sticky notes) and Virbela (virtual offices and conferences with sponsors' exhibit hall). As a result, we've increased innovation, adopted new technologies faster, experienced more knowledge transfer and created a better client experience.
Travel is more obvious, yet worthy of mentioning due to the improved results for firms, employees and clients. For years I have heard partners discuss travel time and whether it was chargeable, built into billing rates or just part of the job. I believe travel has changed forever as we are now in both virtual and physical worlds. Some refer to the virtual world as "Cloudlandia." The most visible benefits have been the time and dollars saved. The less obvious benefits have been increased learning, better work/life integration and more capacity.
Many still talk about their preference for a physical world. I admit that feeling creeps in, but the further we get into Cloudlandia, the faster I come back to the reality that things will be different in the "new normal." That "new normal" is being defined and changing each day.
Our profession is being impacted minimally compared to other professions and industries. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, insurance, medical, and retail are just a few. I feel gratitude, but also the need for vigilance and the ability to learn quickly.
Everyone has an opinion about meetings: too many, not enough and whether they are productive. The virtual world can deliver more productive and shorter meetings, but it takes planning, preparation and experience. On a personal note, our team has evolved over the years from being office-based to a hybrid model, and finally, a virtual environment that started approximately five years ago.
Efficient and effective meetings are cultural and require planning. We utilize two primary tools: Zoom video conferencing and collaborative Box Notes for agendas, minutes and related document links. The most important thing about collaborative notes is to have a standard agenda template that participants get accustomed to and can quickly review online if unable to attend the meeting.
Cadence and frequency are also important. Like most large firms, it is impossible for everyone to attend regularly scheduled meetings due to consulting, community and training engagements. Our system and processes allow those who cannot participate to quickly review the information and remain informed. Videos have also become more prevalent.
Here are a few tips for accelerating acceptance within your organization.
Use video conferencing for all internal calls and meetings. This gets people comfortable and familiar with technology.
Don't have meetings without an agenda and defined purpose.
Supplement meetings with tools like Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook.
Place different people in the leader role and allow them to conduct the meeting. This is great training and leadership development experience.
Start and end on time. Seek input from those who are new and less outspoken.
Innovation should be a part of your culture. Innovation means coming up with something new or a big idea. Unfortunately, innovation does not happen just by saying, "We are an innovative firm." Innovation requires hindsight, insight and foresight. The pandemic forced firms to make big changes to workflow, client services and many processes that have improved the client experience, added increased value and advanced the firm into the digital and virtual world.
With this said, innovation occurs when there is a process in place to foster innovation. This requires time and resources, as well as a method for evaluating and funding priority ideas. Some firms have trouble with the concept of failing fast and moving on to the next priority, but this mindset is necessary for innovation.
Many firms are comfortable playing the role of letting others innovate and then adopt what they believe to be best practices into their firms. I believe a combination of both serves most firms best.
Exponential change has been forced upon most firms and their clients. The majority of firms have responded remarkably and lived up to their title of "most trusted business advisor." Keep up the good work and continue to focus on the benefits coming from this period of exponential change. Remember, the solutions you develop for your firm have the potential to add value to your clients in the areas of leadership, talent, technology, processes and growth.
Do you want the tools and accountability to start from where you are now and get where you want to be?
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L. Gary Boomer, Visionary & Strategist of Boomer Consulting, Inc., is recognized in the accounting profession as the leading authority on technology and firm management. He consults and speaks around the globe on several topics including strategic and technology planning; mindset, skillsets and toolsets for the future; change management and developing a training and learning culture. He also acts as a planning facilitator and coach to some of the accounting profession's top firms.