By: L. Gary Boomer, Visionary & Strategist for Boomer Consulting, Inc.

On November 3, Gary will join Avii CEO and Cofounder Lyle Ball in presenting Avii Webinar “Cloud Software Downtime in Accounting: Tools for Moving Beyond the Seasonal Nightmares.” Register for the webinar, which offers one free hour of CPE credit.

In preparation for that event, Gary has provided the following insights, excerpted from his article in Boomer Insights for October:

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. So, what have we learned?

These are the areas we saw accounting professionals identify as their largest challenges prior to the pandemic:

  • Digital workflow
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Travel (time and expense)
  • More productive meetings
  • Innovation

Interestingly, many of these items have been on firms’ priority lists for several years, while others have become apparent more recently. This year, however, each of these categories stepped forward, and some came forward in astonishing ways.

It’s impossible to leverage technology and other resources with paper in the processes.

For example, consider management of a virtual workforce. In 2020, within a period of 48 hours and 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. We are still establishing the “new normal” on a daily basis. But I’d like to explore several of the exponential changes in more detail.

Digital Workflow

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
  • Audit processes

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).

Knowledge Transfer

With a 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

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.

Meetings

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. At Boomer, 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:

  1. Use video conferencing for all internal calls and meetings. This gets people comfortable and familiar with the technology.
  2. Don’t have meetings without an agenda and defined purpose.
  3. Supplement meetings with tools like Microsoft Teams and Workplace by Facebook.
  4. Place different people in the leader role and allow them to conduct the meeting. This is great training and leadership development experience.
  5. Start and end on time. Seek input from those who are new and less outspoken.

Innovation

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.

As we near the conclusion of 2020, it is fair to say that 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.” 

In this respect, I urge every firm to keep up the good work and continue to focus on the benefits coming from this period of exponential change not only for the balance of 2020 but as a backdrop for best practice in the many seasons to come.

L. Gary Boomer, Visionary & Strategist for Boomer Consulting, Inc., is recognized in the accounting profession as the leading authority on technology and firm management. Gary is the creator of The Boomer Technology Circles and the Boomer CIO Circle, helping firms bridge the gap between technology and practice management.

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