Today’s professional accounting or law practice has a number of issues to contend with, not the least of which is technology. While IT has been serving the firm for years, shifting paradigms in computing are leading professionals to wonder exactly which direction they should turn for advice. It’s easy, at a high level, to see the value and benefit of outsourced IT services and being able to focus on your core offerings, but it’s a little harder to find exactly which path your firm should follow. One thing has proven true over the past few years: taking a holistic approach to cloud-enabling your firm is far better than any uncoordinated exchange of applications and services.
There are four areas the firm should explore when looking to more fully leverage technology to its benefit, which is what “cloud-enabling” the practice really means:
- Transitioning to a paperless (or less paper) office
- Exploring alternative billing methods (value versus time?)
- Outsourcing non-core and non-strategic tasks and processes
- Streamlining procedures to create consistency in service levels
The challenge is that firms have numerous options and approaches being thrown about, none of which represent obvious solutions to the entire problem. In pieces, cloud services and online applications can deliver new capability and functionality, but a professional practice has the requirement for systems to work together to be effective. Re-entry or redundant storage of data is inefficient, so it is difficult to streamline procedures when the systems run on different platforms or don’t integrate well.
One approach is the “hybrid” approach, where you take the best of the tried and true, and deploy it in new ways to create new capabilities. Also introducing cloud-based and SaaS solutions where they can truly help the firm innovate makes sense, as long as those solutions can connect back to the core systems. The key is to not lose what efficiency and business intelligence the firm already has while attempting to transform and improve upon those models (digital transformation).
The new thinking by some firms is to adopt web-based practice management solutions that make it easier to collaborate with team members and clients. Many of these solutions get great reviews and indeed do make it easier for users to access information from anywhere and on mobile devices. Lots of neat features for the forward-thinking practice are available, yet the problem is that these solutions usually don’t have general accounting functionality required by the business, nor do they address some of the fundamental capabilities that apps on the desktop can.
For the online applications serving line-of-business functionality, the easy answer to finance department questions is to connect to an online accounting solution, like QuickBooks Online. While this may serve the needs of the developer, the needs of the business finance department often outpace the functionality available in the smb online accounting products. To address this reality, many developers have created the means to export data to the QuickBooks software running on the local desktop.
The desktop editions of QuickBooks remain extremely popular with professional service firms and the businesses they serve. In a cloud and mobile world, the firm and their client doesn’t have to be tied to the local desktop in order to keep their desktop software or collaboratively work in the data. When the QuickBooks desktop software is setup within a secure remote access environment (whether on-premises or with a hosting provider), users benefit from the same mobility and realtime collaboration advantages as with a SaaS solution, like anytime/anywhere access.
Virtual desktops and remote application models allow users to access what seems like a workstation in the cloud, with business applications such as QuickBooks and Microsoft Office and whatever else the firm uses. The desktop is a true Windows platform, so the features and functionality are just as they are when working directly on a local PC.
Most remote or virtual desktop setups also let the user access the Internet and use a browser on the remote desktop, allowing users to run the SaaS solutions they’ve subscribed to alongside their desktop applications yet still remain in a totally virtual and mobile working environment. This approach allows the firm to centralize management and administration of internal servers and networking resources, or eliminate much of the maintenance and management by outsourcing to a hosting provider. Outsourcing the hosting and management of systems further establishes predictability in cost and increases IT agility.
The thing to remember is that one size does not fit all, and every firm will need to work within their own requirements and motivations to come up with the proper approach. What works for a solo practitioner or small firm won’t necessarily work for a larger firm… or maybe it will, depending on the company culture and structure. There are a lot of options with the cloud when it comes to outsourced information technology models, online practice management and other business solutions, and mobile services which reduce the impacts of time and distance. It’s time to start implementing on-demand access and mobile-friendly service options before the competition leaves you behind. Interestingly enough… the competition that looks like a huge and successful firm could be just one person using some really smart IT.