While many firms understand the need for automation, they've yet to implement the required solutions — often due to a lack of consistent processes, lack of time, or simply not knowing where to start. But this delay can wind up costing your firm for years to come in the form of high turnover, hindered growth and lost revenue.
It's tempting to look for automation opportunities and jump right in. And while this strategy can deliver some quick wins, you'll see better results if you create a process for innovation and a process around automation. In other words, don't just focus on the process you want to automate, but build a process around identifying automation opportunities.
These steps can help you enact automation across your firm.
Step 1: Define the process
Each process in your firm has four characteristics:
Inputs. Inputs are the raw materials that the process will transform to deliver its value proposition. In your firm, inputs might include output from another process, documents, firm policies, templates and more.
Outputs. Outputs are the things delivered by a process that fulfills its value proposition. For example, your outputs may be a tax return, a financial statement, an invoice, a report, an onboarded employee or client, an input requited for a different process, etc.
Systems. What systems/technologies are involved in the process from start to finish? The systems involved will vary from process to process but might involve email, a client portal, your firm's practice management system, the client's cloud accounting software, your tax or audit solution, etc.
Triggers. What triggers each step of the process? And can you automate that trigger? One trigger example would be receiving an email that reminds you to look for an e-file acceptance.
Step 2: Determine if the process is well-suited for automation
When considering which processes to automate, consider the following factors:
Employee involvement. Tasks that have become error-prone or are time-consuming are prime for automation.
Complexity. Is it a complex task with a lot of human intervention? Try to simplify the process as much as possible. While it is possible to automate complex tasks, they require a lot more setup.
Volume. Another good opportunity for automation is tasks that fluctuate in volume. For example, collecting client documents, getting signed Form 8879s, and releasing e—filings take a tremendous amount of time during busy season but very little during the rest of the year.
Standardization. Automation works best with highly definable, rules-based tasks that occur the same way every time.
Remember, even if you can't automate the entire process from start to finish, you may be able to automate steps within that process to save an enormous amount of time.
Step 3: Clear the roadblocks
Automation can bring major changes for employees, and one of the biggest roadblocks to automation is fear. That's why it's crucial to simplify your communication around automation.
For many people, the "robotic" part of robotic process automation (RPA) is scary. It conjures images of robots taking their jobs. But RPA is about helping people do more work with the same resources — not eliminating them.
Step 4: Look at the tools you already have
Getting started with automation doesn't require huge investments into new technology and tools. The first thing you should consider is what you already have. Your existing practice management, document management, tax, audit and other systems likely already have workflow components.
We've seen firms accomplish a lot with Microsoft Power Automate. For example:
K-1 Distribution. After completing a partnership return, K-1s are automatically routed to the partner's document management system folder if the firm does the partner's individual tax return. If the firm doesn't do the individual's return, the K-1s are routed to a central location. This triggers a marketing opportunity: why doesn't the firm have that partner's business?
Automating Extensions. Every February, the admin staff would proactively extend returns the firm knew would be extended. This year, the firm freed up that admin staff using MS Power Automate to extend those returns automatically.
Confirmation Tracking. The firm developed a confirmation tracking system in SharePoint Online MS Power Automate and removed approximately 65% of the manual work involved in tracking confirmations.
These are just a few of the many examples shared at our most recent Boomer Technology Circles meeting. Many firms start with tasks that are non-client facing so they get some experience and comfort with automation before automating steps that involve the client.
Don't forget to get your IT team involved when you're looking for automation opportunities. If you talk to your IT team about the tasks or processes you want to automate, you may discover they know right away how to approach it. If you don't involve them, you could miss opportunities or waste time figuring it out on your own.
Could your firm benefit from getting firm management and IT leaders in alignment?
The Boomer Technology Circles are a peer group of firm and technology leaders in the accounting profession who benefit from aligning IT and firm strategy and building valuable long-term relationships with solution providers and peers. Apply now to start building confidence in your firm's technology decisions.
Amanda Wilkie, Consultant at Boomer Consulting, Inc., has a computer science background, but she’s not your average geek. With two decades of technology experience, Amanda has spent 13 years driving change and process improvement through innovative technology solutions working across firms of varying sizes in the public accounting profession. She has held strategic leadership positions in firms ranging from Top 50 to Top 10 including her most recent role as CIO of a Top 30 firm. Amanda is a recognized expert in the profession who regularly speaks and writes on blockchain and cryptocurrency and their impact on the profession.