For years, the accounting profession has been looking for better tools for digitally managing their documents and integrating that process with all the tools that allow them to deliver services to their clients. While the technology is improving, often firms are finding that it's not about whether you have the latest, the biggest or the best; it's about how you use what you have.
According to a 2013 survey by MIT Sloan Management Review titled Embracing Digital Technology, only 15 percent of companies considered themselves to be "digitally mature", that is, sharing a strong vision around their digital process, managing decisions around technology quickly and gaining the most value from the digital transformation. Eighty-one percent of these executives believe digital technology will put their organizations at a competitive advantage and raise profits.
On the opposite end, 65 percent ranked their companies in the "least mature" category. They use email and various enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, but are very slow to adopt it, asking a lot of questions, waiting for technologies to prove themselves before making any buying decisions. They also are skeptical about the social and analytical aspects of technology. Only 18 percent of these executives believe technology will make them more competitive.
"The leaders in this transformation have better customer service, streamlined processes and efficiency. They use digital assets to promote new business and get closer to clients", said Mike Sabbatis, chief revenue officer for RealPage, Inc., a provider of on-demand software and services for property management professionals and investors, and member of the executive board at XCM Solutions and Doc.IT.
"If you're going to achieve this [transformation], you need to develop a clear vision, communicate it to your staff, visibly support it and take small and conscious steps, you can't ever stop", Sabbatis said during a session on document management essentials during AWEBLive!, the 12-hour CPE marathon. "The only wrong move you can make is no move at all."
Questions to ask when making technology decisions include: How will this technology transform my business and processes? Is it just adding bells and whistles to existing processes? What would be the ideal way to interact with or serve clients better?
"If you understand your clients' needs and are faster than your competitors, that's a strategic competitive advantage", Sabbatis said.
Who is making sure the firm's technology strategy is being implemented? Many firms do things by committee, but Sabbatis suggests surveying people for input and having one person "own" the process. Give that person enough political clout for them to overcome resistance, and reward them when the project succeeds.
That being said, many firms could benefit from driving decision at the base level, not the top of the firm, according to Sabbatis. "Usually innovation occurs from the broad critical thinkers that will press the veterans to ask questions", he said.
"Collecting and processing [information] has changed, but you've taken the mess of paper and created a digital mess on your PC", Sabbatis said. "Document management is a simple set of ideas with a lot of complex problems around it."
He offered some additional suggestions:
Standardization is one of the biggest things firms struggle with—different partners wanting to interact with clients in different ways. How and what to store and share should be in the firmwide policies.
Creation of work binders is a best practice. Ensure client engagement work is well-organized for quick navigation, meaning the status can be viewed easily and all the information is easily searchable.
Document management is more than storage, but needs to be application-independent and have some level of interoperability with other systems.
Beware of multiple copies. If too many copies are floating around, it creates audit risk, potential client risk and security risk. Look at version controls to lock down documents, creating a single source of truth.
Consider mobility and the ability to view documents on various devices.
Exchanging documents in a secure environment is not only important but mandatory in many cases. Use client portals and other ways to collaborate with clients, not just provide a static one-way delivery mechanism. Make sure the clients find the system user friendly.
Paper is not dead. No matter how much paper firms remove from their own processes, inevitably paper will come in the door and there needs to be a system to deal with that.
Despite whatever decision firms make today, remember the process is ever-evolving.
"Once you put a process in place and begin to use it, don't think you're done. Great companies always re-asses why they are doing something", Sabbatis advised. "Bake it a bit, let people think about it, challenge it, ask why we're doing it, then implement and re-assess."
The full webinar and slides are available on the AccountingWEB site.
About the author:
Alexandra DeFelice is senior manager of communication and program development for Moore Stephens North America, and a regional member of Moore Stephens International Limited, a network of more than 360 accounting and consulting firms with nearly 650 offices in more than 100 countries. Alexandra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.