Cloud and Digital are Driving Change in Professional Practice

Accounting and Finance Professionals: Cloud and Digital are Driving Change in Professional Practice

Accountants and financial consultants working in public practice are experiencing a revolutionary change, evolving from documents and paper-based processes with after-the-fact reporting to real-time business management and providing services which support daily decision-making.  The underlying cause for this evolution in business accounting is the technology: cloud and collaborative computing models are enabling much closer and regular interaction between accounting professionals and the businesses they serve. Even more, technology is taking its proper place in automating once tedious activities, allowing professionals to focus on causes and results rather than on transactions.

What is the real impact this is having on the accounting profession?  It’s forcing a new focus and attention on change management within the practice, and is causing professionals to recognize the requirement for standardization of processes and development of controls which are the foundations for creating sustainability in a business.  The goal now is placing reliance on process rather than people, which establishes the basis for intelligent automation.  Standardization of processes does not require that the firm lose its personality.  Rather, the mission at hand is to imbue the organization with its unique flavor and approach and to use process automation to develop and support consistency in the functions performed.

While cloud computing models allow accounting and finance professionals to work closer with their business clients, it is important that the practice look at those client interactions and develop standards for processes supporting frequently performed functions.  These operations generally represent the activities within the firm which generate the highest levels of profitability due to the consistency in approach and repetition of tasks, and are the activities to apply intelligent automation to first.  Those activities or engagements which represent the “one-offs” are often the most costly for the firm to perform, and therefore may not be the most profitable of activities and are certainly the most challenging to support with any significant level of automation.  It is in this area where AI will find useful value in the practice, where a more informed answer than simple process automation is required.

The surprising finding when looking at many professional practices with more than one partner/professional involved is that these firms often fail to develop even the most basic of standard processes which apply throughout the firm.  Rather, each partner or professional has “their way” of handling things, which challenges the supporting personnel as they try to deal with multiple working methods. The result is a lack of consistency in the service delivery to the clientele and reduced productivity and profitability for the firm.

The thing that these firms are failing to recognize – the light bulb over their heads that just isn’t lighting up – is that cloud computing and collaborative working models aren’t designed just to enable and facilitate a closer working relationship with clients.  They’re also able to be applied inside the professional practice, enabling a more productive and efficient workflow which addresses the strengths and capabilities of the entire organization. And it doesn’t stop there.  Businesses are relying upon their accounting professionals to provide guidance and develop controls and standards to support the client transformation from paper-based to digital operations, and embracing the entire realm of data and interactions associating with the business. Digital transformation in a client business demands transformation in those firms who serve it.

As professionals learn to go deeper in client operations they would do well to look internally, too, exploring how increased attention to process automation and consideration for the firm’s own “digital transformation” might lead to great profitability through market differentiation and improved performance.

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Robots are just automation you didn’t know you needed

There is a big trend in software integration these days which involves automation – turning connected systems into free-flowing conduits for data to move intelligently into and out of with ease.  Well, maybe not quite that, but the key is the unattended and intelligent movement of data from one system to another.  People don’t have to get involved in order for the information to flow from one system to another… it just goes by itself.  Like a robot.

Having software and systems connect to one another isn’t new at all, and businesses have for many years recognized the value of being able to have information entered in one system available in another.  Entire ERP frameworks have been created based on this concept of entering data once and using it in many ways.  The trick is when there is more than one system or software product involved.

A simple example might be someone who owns a web store and does their bookkeeping with QuickBooks Premier.  The webstore isn’t running QuickBooks; it is running an e-commerce solution or shopping cart system that allows customers to buy things online.  However, the webstore does create sales orders and charge transactions, and may even have to manage an inventory of saleable items.

Getting the information from the webstore to QuickBooks and vice versa is often a task business owners take on, either by entering the information manually themselves or hiring and employee to do it.  This manual re-entry of information introduces a large potential for errors in the data entered and is time-consuming and costly.

“It was just awful,” said David Clothier, treasurer of the Knoxville, Tenn., company, which operates more than 500 Pilot Flying J truck stops nationwide. “There were humans everywhere.”

Rather than having a person re-type the information from one system into another, software-based integration programs may be available to help users map the data and move it from one solution to the other.  Using a software program to transfer the information is much faster and reduces the error rate, increasing the overall value and usefulness of the information.

Automation isn’t the only requirement that makes this all robot-like.  The additional requirement is the intelligence.  If people still have to get directly involved in order for something to happen, then all the happening is still based on human performance. No robots here.

Intelligent integration of information occurs when the systems on both ends are capable of making decisions and acting on them.  For example, a business might use a solution that allows vendors to submit their invoices electronically.  Through a base of rules that match invoices to requests and approvals, the system is able to issue payment and record the transactions automatically and without human intervention, saving hugely on personnel and processing costs.  Robots (the automation solution) wouldn’t make up all the rules, but could follow them repetitively and without question once established.

…software can help businesses operate more effectively. “If you think like a human, there are only certain things you can do. When you think like a robot, many things are possible.”

It isn’t a new paradigm for building businesses – this doing of things a bit smarter than before and leveraging technology to get more done in less time.  The difference is that the pace of change is increasing, giving businesses less time to stand by and rub the chin and consider whether or not this new fangled technology makes sense. Robots, you say? Meet your new part-time bookkeeper.

jmbunnyfeetMake Sense?