CPAs’ insightful nature, balancing skepticism and due diligence can be beneficial when making key decisions for a business (jeffbergen/Getty Images)
While organizations have been digitizing their operations for years, the pandemic made it a make-or-break proposition for many. Faced with the need to manage a remote workforce, develop new service delivery channels and improve services, organizations have in many cases sped up their digitization efforts.
This new development creates opportunities for CPAs to contribute to the process, either as part of the leadership team or as service providers.
For CPAs who are interested in becoming involved in digital transformation, here are the steps involved in the process. (For resources that can help you to develop your tech skills, see Tech stop: Resources for building your digital skills.)
A digital transformation typically begins with a discovery—an analysis of the type of business the company is in and its most important activities. As CPA Obed Maurice, a partner at Avail CPA in Lethbridge, AB, explains, the business would start by asking itself questions such as:
- What value is it bringing to the market?
- How is it doing that? (For example, a plumbing company might do on-site visits but also has a myriad of other functions such as administration, finance, client experience, marketing and sales.)
- What are the touchpoints that the company is bringing to stakeholders?
Once these questions have been answered, it’s time to develops what Maurice calls “a really good vision of what we want the future to look like.” As he explains, this doesn’t even involve technology at first.
“We’re looking to really understand the problem and the impact of solving it. For example, customers might be frustrated with processing time. By solving the problem, you create a better client experience.”
With a firm vision of what it wants to accomplish, the team can then do a deep dive into the organization’s current systems and processes. “It’s this analysis that will help us determine what changes are needed,” Maurice says.
He adds that analyzing documented processes is especially important because in many cases they will have evolved over time: “No one has actually thought about where they came from.”
REFLECTION AND EXECUTIVE ALIGNMENT
With the deep dive completed, the leadership team can move into a period of reflection, where it considers opportunities to automate and redesign processes. For example, Maurice points out that a plumbing company might look at digitizing its billing or appointments. A law firm might consider offering virtual meetings or digital signatures.
These ideas will go back to the stakeholders for a discussion. “Customers and team members should be at the top of the list because they will be directly affected by any changes,” says Maurice.
Naturally, obtaining buy-in from the executive team is a key part of this phase, says Stephanie Terrill, CPA, business unit leader, management consulting, at KPMG in Canada. “They need to provide the resources and funding to support the changes,” she says. “So that alignment is essential.”
ROAD MAP AND GOVERNANCE
Once buy-in is gained, it’s time to develop a road map. This, says Terrill, can be multi-year or much shorter. “For the large and complex organizations, it’s generally a three- to five-year map, whereas with smaller, less complex organizations operating in a single jurisdiction, it might be as short as six months.”
Governance is also a critical consideration at this stage. “You’ve got to give a lot of thought to the people that are going to be involved,” says Maurice.
Terrill adds that having this knowledge will allow you to set up the various projects and resource them. “For example, a company might be implementing an e-commerce solution at the same time as it is introducing a cloud-based ERP program and transitioning to a cloud data platform.”
From this point on, change management becomes key. “People can be fearful of change, so you need to be really transparent about the goals and expectations of the transformation,” adds Maurice.
A large part of a company’s game plan has to do with selecting the technologies that will be used. And this can be tricky, says Terrill. “Many software and technology sales representatives are focused on selling you their products, and you’ll need to understand their differences. CPAs are well positioned to bring insights in this decision with a healthy degree of skepticism and due diligence competencies.”
Terrill adds that you’ll also need to know how any new technology is going to interact with your legacy systems and data. “Part of this is understanding where there might be gaps and how your data will move between all of the different systems.”
Terrill says integration with legacy systems can be especially difficult for larger organizations, where much of the operational data resides on a mainframe. “No one knows what is in there because the data was input such a long time ago. So there is a lot of disentangling to do.”
With software selected, implementation can begin. And here, Maurice says, it helps to start small. “It’s always valuable to get a couple of quick wins with a small group to test out some of our ideas before moving forward,” he says.
Working out the bugs is a natural part of implementation, says Maurice. “For example, if you’re introducing a document management system, you might not have the right hardware to scan in the documents,” he says. “You have to be prepared for those kinds of bugs. Often, great progress is made in increments rather than through some sweeping disruption that is perfectly executed.”
Terrill adds that implementation is not a linear, one-time operation. “You have implementation going at different times,” she says. “And after implementation you need to move to operationalizing or managed services. That’s important because if you’re a big bank and you’ve implemented a new digital retail system, there might be more than 10,000 people affected. And every technology is different.”
Once the change has been operationalized, the organization can move into a continuous improvement cycle, Terrill says.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE END GOAL
Given the complexity involved in a digital transformation, it’s always important to keep your goals firmly in sight. As Terrill puts it, “Tech companies are introducing new products all the time. That’s why executive management needs to know its objectives, what the return on investment is going to be, and how the organization is going to make the transition.”
Maurice adds that people need to be supported throughout the process. “There’s a lot of training involved, a lot of consultation,” he says. “And the last thing we want is for people to get frustrated or lose sight of the vision. That’s why you need to provide as much technical support as possible."
STAYING ONE TECH AHEAD
Learn more about why CPAs are especially suited to be leaders in digitization, and find out more about the tools and knowledge required. And for ways to improve your grounding in technology, see Tech stop: Resources for building your digital skills.