By Alex Vuchnich, CPA, CFE - Working as a software consultant I have had the opportunity to see many successful software implementations. I have also seen a fair share of implementation failures. In observing this I have found there are many places for the implementation to go wrong. When it comes to public accounting firms though, the one mistake I see repeated over and over again is the lack of resources and support provided to firm champions who are charged with implementing the new software. I have seen this not only from an external perspective but also internally when I started my career in public accounting. In many cases, the partners and managers sponsoring the initiative to implement a new software application into the firm believe they are providing adequate support to the staff they charge with implementing software but reality suggest otherwise considering the number of implementation failures that occur in practice. In order to contrast what makes for a successful implementation versus one doomed for failure let me provide two examples from my time spent in public accounting.
When I first started with a public accounting firm I was charged with transitioning the firms client data from a pre-existing trial balance application over to a recently purchased trail balance application. At the time I was finishing a Masters Degree and was interning part-time with the firm that I would eventually go to work for full-time. This one task was my only responsibility. The audit partner made it clear to me that this was the priority for me regardless of what other tasks managers or seniors might request of me. I was given all the resources I would need to complete the task: access to working paper files, both trial balance applications, support and technical manuals for the applications and customer support info. Within about a month we were able to transition everything over. The partner set up times for each staff person to get a 'lesson' on the new software and to learn how to use its import/export capabilities and other features to help automate our procedures. In the end we had a great deal of success with this project and the application truly became ingrained in the firm's process for audit work.
After I had worked at the firm for a few years I was then tasked with a new software implementation project. This time around the firm was looking to add in data extraction capabilities to our audit toolkit for testing journal entries. Because of my previous success with the trial balance implementation and my grad-level work in information systems I was selected once again to champion the project. One noticeable difference this time around though was that now I was carrying a full workload of client engagements. The implementation would certainly mean more hours which would have to be made up on nights and weekends. Also there was not the same push from the audit partner down on this roll-out. It became a laissez-faire implementation. In the end, although I was able to become familiar with the functionality of the software and we used it on a few engagements we never quite got any one else in the firm on board. Eventually we just plain gave up on the software and went back to a manual journal entry review process.
The biggest distinction I drew between these two cases was the level of support I received from the partner sponsoring the roll out. When the partner sponsoring the software implementation is actively communicating a tone from the top to the firm staff, then the firm implementation champion will be in a position to succeed. Without the top-down approach the chances of failure increase significantly. Part of creating the proper tone from the top is to not only communicating the importance of the new software to the firm but also to make sure adequate resources, particularly time, have been allocated to the project. If the project is going to create extra time burdens on the staff implementing the software make sure to communicate the benefits to them in order to achieve buy-in. Do not presume that they are aware of them and remain silent. This may all seem pretty obvious but acting in accordance with these concepts can be challenging so closely monitor these projects and act in a supporting role if you begin to see a project sputtering.