firm of the future Sr•28
afuture firm tech: the cloud, portals, virtualization As the accounting profession continues to struggle with a changing workforce and an increasingly stringent regulatory environment, automating business processes in an effort to boost productivity and improve client service will only grow more critical.
For the firm of the future, this means a rise in cloud-based computing and enhanced mobility.
“I believe that in the future, work is what you do
and not where you go,” said Gary Boomer, chief executive
officer of Manhattan, Kan.-based Boomer Consulting Inc.
He was quoting from the book, Why Work Sucks and
How to Fix It by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, which
examines what happens when companies change their focus
from hours to outcomes.
That notion seems to certainly hold true for the CPA
firm of the future — and judging by the findings of a survey
commissioned by financial and tax software and products
provider CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business, the profession is
already heading in this direction.
The poll, conducted by Opinion Research Corp.,
found that nearly 25 percent of what they defined as “
high-performing” firms report having 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 and smartphones; and 25 percent support wireless
Furthermore, high-performing firms are significantly
more likely to leverage technologies that support paperless
processes and mobile workers, including Software-as-a-Service solutions. SaaS is a form of cloud computing where
scalable resources are provided as a service over the Internet.
Roughly 30 percent of high-performing firms reported using
one or more SaaS applications, and that is expected to grow
to 55 percent within three years, according to the CCH poll.
While industry sources have a few differing thoughts
on what technologies will drive the firm of the future, most
agree that cloud computing tops the list. Simply put, cloud
computing means that a company can access everything
they need to run the business through Web browsers such as
Windows Explorer, Firefox or Safari.
“Right now, those firms on the cutting edge of
technology, they are there. The masses aren’t embracing
it yet, but they will,” said Jim Bourke, partner and
director of internal technology at New Jersey-based
WithumSmith+Brown, referring to cloud computing. “The
days of sending out CDs will be gone.”
John Higgins, strategic advisor with CPA Crossings,
added, “The value proposition [of cloud computing]
is so strong that it will continue to dominate,” and he
predicted that over the next five to 10 years, the majority of
applications will be SaaS.
Boomer believes that firms’ total information
technology spending over the next three years will go down
and firms will gain greater access to data and resources as
they move to the cloud — which can be a fraction of the cost
of an on-premise solution and frees up internal resources.
By Antoinette Alexander
access all necessary documents remotely, but without a
laptop, his briefcase weighs a fraction of what it did.
Automating the business processes within the firm of
the future also involves implementing workflow management
tools, which are gaining traction. However, Higgins predicts
that five years from now workflow management tools will
look even different than they do today. He believes that
future workflow solutions will be even easier to use and more
intuitive and flexible for the user.
Implementing a document management system to track
and store electronic documents will also be critical for firms.
Another cost reducer that is seen by at least one industry
member as a natural bridge to the cloud is virtualization.
Virtualization is aimed at improving the efficiency and
availability of IT resources and permits a single physical
server to run multiple server instances in isolation from each
other as virtual machines.
“This is a real momentous shift, and virtualization is
the steppingstone to get to a cloud-based or SaaS future,”
said Randy Johnston, executive vice president of Network
Management Group Inc.
Whether it is an iPhone, BlackBerry or the new
iPad, mobile devices are expected to become even more
commonplace in the firm of the future, enabling professionals
to multitask better and work remotely.
Boomer said that he recently got an iPad and he
believes it’s a “game-changer.” It not only enables him to
Meanwhile, the stringent regulatory environment around
client privacy and security means that firms will need
to deploy encryption technologies to protect data and
implement technology to enable the sharing of client data.
For example, a sweeping new Massachusetts data
security law (201 CMR 17.00), which went into effect
March 1 of this year, is an example of the increasingly
aggressive role that government is taking to protect client
data. The privacy regulations, which carry harsh penalties,
require that any person maintaining personal information
of a Massachusetts resident, whether in paper or electronic
form, develop and implement a written information security
program (WISP). It also mandates the encryption of client
data in motion and stationary, including on laptops and
other portable devices.
The most logical solution for sharing sensitive client
data, say industry sources, is a client portal.
“It will be a way for clients to get data, but it should
be bi-directional so clients can upload data,” said Bourke.
“You will see more firms deploy technology to protect that
What may be more interesting is that several industry
members see the client portal as having the potential to
significantly transform the CPA/client relationship and
become a gateway to a client’s entire breadth of information.
“I believe portals will take on new meaning and life,”
predicted Boomer. Currently, portals are mainly used to store
static documents, but Boomer envisions that portals will
eventually evolve to aggregate into one place all of a client’s
information like brokerage accounts, W-2s, bank accounts,
and credit card statements.
Higgins agreed: “The potential is to get it as a gateway
to all of the client’s information. The killer app is a true
shared accounting system … that sets up a model where the
CPA can be like a virtual CFO or controller.”
More firms, especially smaller firms, will likely make
greater use of social media platforms like blogs, Twitter and
Facebook as they realize the potential marketing benefits,
suggested Tom Hood, chief executive officer of the Maryland
Association of CPAs.
“The next few years we will see more firms using that
and pulling ahead because they are out there first,” he said.
“This new generation into the workforce will show us new
ways to collaborate better.”