CCH Survey: Accounting firms can improve performance by leveraging resources

With the pressure mounting on accounting firms to do more than ever, a new nationwide survey of accounting professionals by CCH finds that firms can improve their business performance and client services today by more effectively leveraging their people and technology resources. The 2007 CCH Intelligent Business Survey, which includes responses from 300 accounting firms across the U.S., was commissioned by CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business, and conducted by Harris Interactive.

"The dynamics of supply and demand in the profession are heating up like never before, with ever-increasing compliance requirements, the need to focus on higher-value services, growing geographic diversity of clients and staffing challenges," CCH President Mike Sabbatis said in his November 6 conference address at the CCH User Conference 2007.

Sabbatis told the audience that a firm's ability to succeed in this environment will depend in large part on three key components -- people, technology and knowledge -- and how to best leverage these resources to build and sustain the most intelligent business possible.

"Firms today are performing well, but to thrive in this challenging environment, firms need to take their business performance to the next level," he said.

The Importance of Being an Intelligent Business

An intelligent business is one that leverages to the highest extent its most valuable assets, its professional staff - their time and knowledge - and technology tools to achieve the maximum return.

"Doing this isn't about making hard-working staff work harder," said Sabbatis. "Instead, it's about ensuring that maximum productivity is achieved through firm processes and technology, and that staffs' specific client knowledge and individual expertise is captured and shared."

As a strategic partner to tax and accounting professionals, CCH conducted the CCH Intelligent Business Survey to determine for firms of all sizes the importance of operating as an intelligent business. In conducting the survey, CCH also examined how well firms are faring in this mission.

Survey results show that while firms overwhelmingly recognize the importance of being an intelligent business, they have opportunities to advance further in this goal.

"In fact, the survey found that while 96 percent of firms reported that being an intelligent business is an important part of their firm's growth strategy, only 6 percent believe their firm is very effective at operating as an intelligent business today," Sabbatis noted.

Survey Results Detailed at CCH User Conference

The findings of the nationwide CCH Intelligent Business Survey were released at the CCH User Conference 2007, and detailed in a keynote address by Sabbatis. CCH has also issued a whitepaper on survey findings that provides practical insight into steps firms can take to make greater
progress toward this goal. The whitepaper explores:

  • Intelligent Business building blocks

  • The importance of knowledge management, a collaborative culture and technology

  • Best practices for transforming a firm's practice.

    As part of the survey, CCH also examined firms' overall performance as intelligent businesses and found that firms have room to grow. Firm survey responses were evaluated against a performance barometer, with Performance Levels 1-5, that determined how successful firms are in implementing key components of an intelligent business. Overall, the survey found that firms are somewhat effective in operating as intelligent businesses, scoring at the lower end of Level 3.

    Knowledge Management: A Cornerstone of Success

    "When identifying the building blocks of an intelligent business, knowledge sharing serves as the cornerstone, beginning with the most fundamental component: The creation of a formal knowledge management program for capturing and deploying knowledge," said Sabbatis.

    Firms with a formal knowledge management (KM) program consistently performed at a higher level as an intelligent business than firms without a program in place. Firms that are moving forward as intelligent businesses with formal KM programs identified significant benefits, including:

  • 76 percent reporting increased efficiency

  • 69 percent improved client service

  • 63 percent increased productivity

  • 62 percent increased revenue

    Firms with a formal KM program are also significantly more likely to follow other knowledge management best practices, such as deploying supporting technology to further KM initiatives, using a KM database for knowledge sharing and conducting regularly scheduled training on KM
    systems.

    The CCH Survey found, however, that only slightly more than one-third of firms (36 percent) have a formal KM program in place today.

    As to how firms overall capture and share information, the CCH Survey found that firms report collecting and sharing a wide variety of information gathered from employees in centralized knowledge repositories.

    Seventy-six percent of firms using centralized repositories share information on the practical use of software applications, while 61 percent share specialized subject area information and less than one-half (49 percent) include legislative and regulatory knowledge.

    Few firms are using centralized repositories for wider applications, with only 26 percent using repositories for analyzing growth opportunities and only 20 percent for gathering industry intelligence.

    "Most firms would agree that they are always looking for new opportunities to improve client services. Yet, firms likely have the most valuable lever they need to achieve this right at their fingertips - knowledge - and they may not be capitalizing on it," said Sabbatis.

    Putting a knowledge management champion in place can help ensure that firms are making the most strategic use of the knowledge assets they have.

    The CCH Survey found that the role is underutilized today, with just 28 percent of firms having identified a KM champion.

    Cultural Changes Needed to Encourage Sharing and Learning

    While a collaborative culture is an essential part of an intelligent business, the CCH Survey shows that firms can do more to incorporate collaboration and knowledge sharing into their human resource practices.

    The survey found that most firms are well aware of the importance of "teamwork" to their success, with 73 percent reporting that "being a strong team player" is a very important attribute in firm members. Yet, for many firms, a strong cultural infrastructure is not in place to support this behavior. The survey found that only 19 percent of firms would describe their staff as highly collaborative.

    Additionally, just about one-half of firms include knowledge sharing in staff performance reviews (53 percent) or in firm management processes (48 percent), and only 35 percent include knowledge sharing in employee job descriptions. And, while mentoring programs are considered to be a highly effective tool for leveraging senior expertise throughout a firm, only 22 percent of firms have a mentoring program in place.

    "Firms need to do more to make collaboration and knowledge sharing a part of their everyday business to ensure staff is as efficient and productive as possible, and that knowledge gained over the years does not disappear as partners retire," cautioned Sabbatis.

    Deploying Enabling Technology

    The paperless office is also at the core of the intelligent business as it enables firms to use technology to leverage information and knowledge; increase collaboration across the firm and with customers; and minimize repeatable low-level tasks to deliver productivity, efficiency and service gains.

    According to the CCH Survey, firms have the opportunity to further advance in this area to ensure they are deploying leading technology that helps them achieve their business objectives. An overview of what firms have deployed includes:

  • Integrated tax research and software systems: 55 percent

  • Electronic document management systems: 45 percent

  • Paperless engagements: 32 percent

  • Resource management solutions: 32 percent

  • Business analytics software: 30 percent

  • Workflow solutions: 30 percent

  • Microsoft Office SharePoint: 18 percent

  • ASP or web-based solutions: 16 percent

    There is also an opportunity to ensure staff is making the best use of the technology the firm has invested in by attending regular training. Most firms report that less than half of their staff has been trained in the past year on the technology the firm has adopted. Additionally, the survey found that while 41 percent of firms have written training requirements for ongoing professional development, only 23 percent require staff training on
    technology and tools.

    "It is critical that firms making technology investments also ensure their staff is properly trained," said Sabbatis. "Without it, staff may cling to old ways, or spend valuable time learning by trial and error."

    Sabbatis summarized the CCH Survey findings overall saying that firms that operate as intelligent businesses will succeed in meeting their client demands consistently, including through transformational times such as we are seeing in the profession today.

    "By being open to innovation and change, and by strategically investing in and leveraging people and technology, firms can ensure their continued high performance," Sabbatis said.

    About The CCH Intelligent Business Survey

    The CCH Intelligent Business Survey provides firms with an understanding of what is required to achieve greater success as an intelligent business and how firms nationwide are progressing in this important objective.

    The CCH Survey was conducted online for CCH by Harris Interactive, a leading global market research and consulting firm, from July 20-27, 2007. The survey reflects experiences of partners from 300 randomly polled accounting firms across the U.S., ranging in size from firms with five to more than 100 employees.

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