Survey: Highest performing CPA firms know how to leverage technology

Creating a long-term sustainable business advantage is the key to success for accounting firms, in both good and challenging times, yet some firms do it better than others. What’s their secret?

CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business, commissioned an independent nationwide survey examining the practices of high performing accounting firms to examine what market leaders are doing today to achieve success and what their plans are for the future. The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Corporation (ORC), included interviews with 100 partners at accounting firms nationwide.
 
Across the board, the survey found that high performing firms are more likely to leverage technology to help them in the critical areas of staffing, client service and practice management to optimize performance.
 
“High performing firms look at technology as a fundamental part of their business platform,” CCH President Mike Sabbatis said to an estimated 1,000 tax and accounting professionals in his keynote address at the CCH User Conference. “Most of these firms include technology in their strategic plans and clearly see the critical role it plays in their success.”
 
 
Anytime, Anywhere Access to Information and Knowledge
 
The CCH Survey found that high performing firms are significantly more likely to leverage technologies that support paperless processes and mobile workers, including Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions.
 
High performing firms say it’s critical that employees have the right tools to do their job and to have technology that enables anytime, anywhere client communications and interaction. As a result, the survey found these firms place an emphasis on supporting and enabling a dynamic, knowledge-driven work environment.
 
Mobile Workforce and Technology
 
Nearly 25 percent of high performing firms report having professional staff working remotely, and they are putting in place solutions to support a growing number of mobile workers. For example, 72 percent report supporting wireless laptops; 60 percent support BlackBerries, iPhones or other PDAs/smart phones; and 25 percent support wireless minis/netbooks. Within the next three years, approximately one-third of firms also say it will be important to have accounting-specific mobile applications including document management and tax and accounting solutions. Not only do high performing firms see equipping mobile workers as a way to boost productivity and better serve clients, but 71 percent also report deploying a mobile workforce directly benefits staff in such ways as improving work/life balance and improving staff efficiency and morale.
 
Paperless Strategy
 
The CCH Survey found that 75 percent of high performing firms already have a paperless strategy and 52 percent of them have been executing on this strategy for at least the last three years. Within three years, 90 percent expect to have a paperless strategy.
 
At least 90 percent of firms include the following practices in their paperless strategy:
 
• A document retention and destruction policy,
• Policies and procedures for scanning and using scanned documents,
• Storing information digitally,
• Using tax software that takes advantage of multiple monitors, and
• Technology for secure remote access of digital information.
 
“These firms have a keen focus on productivity, efficiency and profitability that positions them for even greater gains as the profession shifts to a new work paradigm – working in the cloud,” said Sabbatis.
 
SaaS Adoption
 
Like paperless, SaaS – a form of cloud computing where dynamically scalable resources are provided as a service over the Internet – is another enabling technology that will have a game-changing impact on firms. It also is an area where adoption among high performing firms is gathering momentum. Today, about 30 percent of high performing firms are using one or more SaaS applications and that is expected to grow to 55 percent within three years, according to the CCH Survey.
 
Among the benefits these firms expect to realize are:
 
• Improved efficiency and time savings,
• Improved business continuity,
• Better client service and convenience,
• Lower total cost of ownership and reduced capital expenses,
• Improved application portability, and
• Easier software deployments.
 
“Many firms are recognizing that a combination of on-premise and SaaS solutions, based on their particular business requirements will offer the greatest results and return on investment,” said Sabbatis.
 
In his address at the CCH User Conference, Sabbatis told professionals that cloud computing and SaaS will usher in a new age of innovation.
 
“With new capabilities at your fingertips, greater access to data and built-in business intelligence, you’ll be able to accomplish a lot more work and focus on what you do best: Serve your clients,” Sabbatis said. “You’ll also realize additional benefits from this new paradigm that we haven’t even thought of yet as you look at your workflows and processes and innovate.”
 
The CCH Survey white paper offers more detail on SaaS trends, as well as a Glossary and a Technology Total Cost of Ownership checklist.
 
Knowledge Management Systems
 
High performing firms are increasingly seeing the need for knowledge management systems as being critical to ensuring employees have the information and tools they need to do their jobs,
 
“The numbers are staggering,” Sabbatis said. “It’s estimated that knowledge workers spend 15 to 35 percent of their time looking for information they need to do their jobs, and 40 percent of the time they never find it.”
 
High performing firms are taking steps to ensure this productivity drain is stopped.
 
Today, 32 percent use knowledge management systems, and that is expected to exceed 50 percent in three years, according to the CCH Survey.
 
“Several factors are converging that underscore the importance of having knowledge management solutions in place,” Sabbatis said. “These include continued staffing challenges, the demand for increased productivity, the impending loss of expertise from retiring Baby Boomers and the increasing expectation of younger workers for a collaborative culture.”
 
Optimizing Client Service, Staff Productivity and Practice Management
 
The CCH Survey found that high performing firms place an emphasis on harnessing technology to achieve their goals. Eighty-four percent report using technology return on investment and total cost of ownership analytics as a critical factor for optimizing technology. Other critical yardsticks they take into consideration include how the technology will enhance or improve client service, staff productivity and practice management.
 
In addition to the technologies mentioned above, other technologies in place and growing among high performing firms include:
 
• Document management systems,
• Integrated tax and accounting product suites,
• Practice management systems,
• Integrated information and compliance solutions, and
• Client portals.
 
Creating More Social Businesses
 
As more people become social media participants, it’s important for accounting firms to determine how they will become more social businesses, and leaders are already doing that. Forty-one percent of partners at high performing firms leverage social media for professional use, the survey found. These partners find the most value from online communities. As it relates to specific business purposes, the survey found that firms are using a range of channels appropriate to their specific needs. For example, the top tools used for marketing are firm blogs, followed by LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and professional online communities.

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