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The technological struggle

To stay relevant and keep clients’ trust and confidence, CPAs must adapt or risk falling behind.
April 27, 2021

By Jordan C. Hartman, CPA

In the fast-moving environment we often find ourselves operating in, it can be hard to overstate just how important the adoption of new technologies will be to the future of our profession. Certainly, we have all been exposed by now to a handful of technologies that will change how our industry works and indeed transform how our workplaces have been traditionally structured. However, this can often be easier to plan for than to execute. As a group, accountants have a tendency to be resistant to change — a result of our conservative nature and education.

As a client-server, I have seen how difficult these transitions can be for a company. It is typical for the adoption of a new piece of software to be planned far in advance. The decision to make a change to a business process is something management teams are often hesitant to do. Even the process of selecting a piece of technology can be a daunting challenge for teams, who are typically not versed in the latest innovations. The decision then becomes to hire consultants to make a recommendation and assist with adoption. Every part of this process costs the company time and money on top of the ultimate cost of the technology. The entire process from beginning to end will usually be measured in years; meanwhile the pace of progress in what is available continues.

The benefits of technological adoption can also sometimes be abstract while having visible consequences. In large part, the biggest impact on our profession will be process automation. And while computers are certainly great at taking simple repetitive tasks and performing them with a high degree of accuracy, behind those changes is work that used to be performed by a human. It is an inescapable result that certain functions that have been a mainstay in finance departments around the country will be lost as the pace of adoption increases. This can have a real effect on the approach taken by management and risks creating luddites out of teams.

All of this is not to argue against the adoption of technology, but it is important to understand all the headwinds we face. When it comes to transforming the services we provide to our clients as CPAs, we must remember that this can be an excellent opportunity to differentiate ourselves. Everyone is approaching the digital transformation a little differently, and the variety of disciplines that collide to produce new methods of delivering our services will have effects on the structure of our organizations and the decisions that students we recruit make. The best thing you can is to determine what the goals of your organization are going to be and use that to develop a plan of adoption. The following points may help:

  • Determine the methodology: Your organization most likely already has methodology in place for how you deliver your services, even if informally. For assurance folks, this is how we ensure we are meeting regulatory requirements. The important first step is to look at how this is being applied in practice and where there might be room for improvement. This will involve thinking through how you can utilize technology to either have better or more efficient service delivery. An important concept borrowed from the tech world is “don’t reinvent the wheel.” Always be innovative and build off what others have already learned the hard way.
  • Develop your platform: This can mean anything from purchasing software to building up something from scratch depending on the scale of your organization. The important thing to keep in mind is that you are doing this after you set your goals and methodology. It can be very easy, especially when working with those from other expertise, to get sidetracked by features that sound impressive in a meeting but don’t clearly support the goal of your service. Remember that you are not buying a toy but a tool, and the reason you are doing so is to stay competitive within the market.
  • Implement training: The best piece of technology is limited in the hands of a poorly trained team. Worse yet is a team that doesn’t use digital tools because they don’t know how they fit in with service delivery. Given the cyclical nature of a lot of the service we provide as CPAs, it is important to plan ahead to ensure your team is onboarded before they are too busy but not given enough time to forget everything they learned. Even then, it’s important to think about your teams’ backgrounds. For some, adoption can be difficult and repetition will be needed to ensure proper utilization.
  • Track metrics: One of the most important concepts is to ensure you take a data-driven approach to evaluating the results of technological adoption. To that end, ensure that clear metrics and a method for tracking them have been established. Given the complexity involved, it cannot be assumed that changes will be a net benefit during the first iteration and understanding how to adjust will be important to success. It can also be important to determine why adoption is not taking place fast enough.
  • Reevaluate, refine, expand: Finally, be sure to set up a process for continuous improvement and always be thinking ahead, because your competition surely will be. This is an important concept to keep in mind throughout the process. How might your purchasing decisions be affected knowing you might find a better service provider next cycle?

It’s important to reflect on the following new take on an old adage. “You can build the lake, fill it with water, bring your horse, but you can’t always make him drink.” By nature, people, not just CPAs, are resistant to change — and it’s not because they are stubborn or set in their ways. Humans naturally build routines; it’s how our minds evolved to deal with complex situation, and its normally an efficient way of solving problems. It can be difficult to rework our way of thinking, especially when it comes to digital solutions. However, we need to remember that it is not optional if we want to keep our client’s trust and confidence.

Jordan Hartman, CPA, is a finance plant controller within Corning Inc.'s Life Sciences Division in Manassas. He was previously an assurance manager with EY specializing in private clients and manufacturing. While at EY, Jordan worked with the EY Digital Advisors Network to help teams adopt the latest digital tools and prepare their engagements for EY's transition to a digital methodology.