Samantha Mansfield

Various sources have stated that technology adoption accelerated by years in a matter of a few months during 2020. Most firms have known there was untapped potential in the technology available, but resistance to change and lack of prioritization delayed implementation. Progressive firms that implemented cloud solutions were able to transition to remote work without skipping a beat and have seen double digit growth throughout the year, in part, by helping their clients make a transition to the cloud. Other firms who had not made the cloud transition were forced to react quickly and implement only the basics to keep their teams functioning. We are at the tipping point in the permanent adoption of a blended workforce, where we have remote and onsite team members and where we deliver services onsite and away from our clients. So, if the next step is to create the short- and long-term technology strategies to keep your team members safe, productive, communicating, and collaborating, where do you start?

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic process automation (RPA), the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud, and blockchain. Technology is advancing so fast it can feel impossible, overwhelming, or daunting to keep up. For some, learning about these emerging tools is exciting. Whether you see this as fun or a matter of necessity, it is important to stay aware of the coming trends and to ensure that someone on your team is learning about them with the curiosity we had as children.

It isn’t important that we have all of the answers right now, but it is important that we are asking ourselves and our clients the questions. “…questions are rising in value while answers are declining,’” says Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question. In complex environments, like now, the value of asking questions goes up. We want to change our frame of mind from identifying the solution or knowing the answers and trying to figure out what’s most important and exploring how we might get there. Instead of assuming we know the answer, try asking questions like:

  • “How could it work?”
  • “Why…?”
  • “What if….?”
  • “What happens if…?”

 We have the opportunity to define our “next better” and create a competitive advantage within our organizations. Let’s not focus on trying to recreate the long-standing, in-office processes for anywhere work but ask many questions on how it could work and operate in this new dynamic of truly remote collaboration.

Asking these types of questions will lead to some long-term projects, and you may feel the pressure to resolve many issues now. Start with prioritizing the challenges you face. The items receiving the loudest complaints aren’t always the issues causing the greatest impact.

  • First, evaluate the frequency of the challenge or opportunity. Is it happening daily, weekly, monthly…?
  • Second, ask how much time are you spending on the issue or how much upside there could be in time savings if you resolve it? Perhaps it is happening daily, but it is only taking an extra 5 minutes a day. How does that timing compare to other issues?
  • Third, determine how severely and how pervasive that pain is felt across the firm. Is the issue causing morale issues, impacting engagement, or hurting the client experience?

Once you assess these three components of the existing technology issues and opportunities, you can decide the order of attack. A research and consulting firm be radical., offers a framework tool to assist in prioritization. Determine if the technology solutions needed are available now, can the solution be scaled and what will it require of your firm to implement it.

As a firm leader, you may be feeling like this is yet another project on your to do list, and how will you get to it? Establish a Technology committee or working group to drive progress. To delegate, use this exercise in developing ownership and practice delegating. Depending on the size of your organization, you could organize a taskforce with representatives from each department, or service line, including administration, to participate. When selecting members, don’t dismiss those that historically resist technology; choose someone that has a lot of institutional knowledge and ask them to share their viewpoint. By involving someone who historically resists, they can help you develop buy-in to the change because they have input and a say. The overall owner of technology for the firm should establish clear objectives and goals for the working group. Discuss the reframing questions and prioritization methods discussed here. This will help minimize self-interest projects. Provide a timeline and milestones the team is also accountable too. The key to success for this team is to provide a framework, allow them room to be creative and curious, free up time they can commit to genuinely working on this initiative, and hold them accountable.

To provide focus for the team, there are six primary areas that will enhance your blended remote and on-premise environment:

  • Communication
  • Scheduling and workflow
  • Paperless
  • Security of data
  • Work from home hardware configuration
  • Client collaboration tools

Firms are struggling with these areas. Especially as they try to balance being flexible and yet establishing consistency, efficiency and accuracy. Though most firms have had paperless strategies for years, when moving to a non-centralized work environment, it has become evident how much paper is still in the process; this is especially true for collaborating with clients. Getting clients onboard with technology changes has historically been a problem, but their receptivity of late has tremendously increased. Clients, just like staff, still need training and tips on how to use these tools most effectively. Both clients and staff also need input on ways to work securely when working from “anywhere.”

A successful technology rollout is not based on selecting the right technology alone. In fact, there is evidence that we have so many choices, we feel the pressure to pick the perfect solution, and when there are hiccups, or it doesn’t do exactly what was expected, the buyer’s remorse is even higher. We must acknowledge training and documentation are tantamount to choosing the “right” tools. Identify the team members that will be responsible for the communication and training plans.

We operate in an age where solutions are often built before we recognize the need. One of your teams should own continually monitoring technology development. This may be a different team of people than we have been discussing. I highly recommend looking at other industries and how they are using emerging technologies, like IoT, to increase awareness of the opportunities that could be coming to the accounting and finance profession quickly. When implemented well, technology helps bring people together, not get in the way. The new normal is here, and we are defining the next better. Reimagine how you can communicate, collaborate and build relationships with the support of technology.

Please share a new technology and/or a process transformation that your firm has implemented in 2020.

Stay healthy,

Samantha