By Alexandra DeFelice
The concept of the Cloud and going paperless have been around for some time, but the trend is streaming down more rapidly to smaller firms whose owners are hearing the benefits from their peers.
The whole concept of using the Cloud and going paperless has matured, the solutions are better today than five years ago, and there are more choices, according to John H. Higgins, CPA, CITP. Higgins is strategic advisor at CPA Crossings
and is the coauthor of 10 Steps to a Digital Practice in the Cloud: New Levels of CPA Firm Workflow Efficiency.
The book serves to help those small and midsize accounting firms that lack all the IT resources of larger firms to hop on the digital bandwagon and move forward once they begin.
"A lot of the smaller practitioners doing labor-intensive work are realizing they have to do something," Higgins said. "They managed the technology in their own practice for so long, but now it's just getting too complex. They need to start outsourcing the IT function by leveraging the Cloud and make better use of their time."
What's the hold up?
"A lot of folks are still dragging their feet and failing to see the full value," Higgins said. "The idea of giving up traditional processes is scary to them. That's how they identify themselves - by the work they do. The biggest barriers are reluctance to change and the fear of the unknown as it relates to the Cloud."
Also, they're busy. They have limited resources, especially smaller firms that lack IT departments.
The book outlines several components of a CPA Technology Toolkit, a collection of hardware and software that will help firms run more efficiently. No one expects an accounting firm owner to run to the store and dish out a bunch of dough on technology, but there are some investments that will demonstrate ROI relatively quickly.
The quick hits, according to Higgins, include a laptop, docking station, and dual monitors, which Higgins was surprised to discover some accountants still don't have. While the iPad remains more of a "consumption device" than a true tool to execute tasks such as populating a tax return, it's still extremely useful for reviewing and annotating documents and the real-time status of your clients' business (and your own). Online backup is also essential. While document management, portals, and automated workflow are the key apps to going paperless, a lot of the value is in integration, which Higgins says is improving but still has some bumps to iron out.
Preparation and Training
If your firm plans to make a new technology investment, it's wise to assemble a cross-functional team to identify priorities. For example, if the technology had to do with tax preparation, the team should include a preparer, reviewer, and administrative person, all of whom play a role. This also allows them to feel they contributed to the process, which could mean less resistance upon implementation.
Regardless of the technology, Higgins recommends speaking to other practitioners who use the tools about their experiences - both positive and negative. Better yet, visit firms and watch them using it. Just because something works wonders for them doesn't mean it will apply to your firm.
Too often, firms focus on the tools and fail to pay attention to the people or processes. It's easy to spend time and money on the wrong thing, Higgins said. Focus on inefficiencies in your processes and make those a priority. A lot of organizations train on how to use the technology, but not how to apply it. And more often than not, someone who is not an IT person should be doing the training in order to speak the same language as the other users.
Finally, develop a plan so you know where you're going. The focus should be on the next twelve to twenty-four months rather than the next three to five years.
"There's no end to the efforts you could make to automate your practice," Higgins writes in his book. "The key is to make sure you're spending your time and money on the appropriate initiatives at the appropriate times."