Most leaders in the accounting profession are looking for solutions to the same issues: staffing shortages, managing the rate of change, managing a remote or blended workforce, and more. We are asking ourselves and each other many of the same questions and looking for those who have figured out the answers. In this last quarter of the year, let’s prioritize time spent in Stephen Covey’s Quadrant II (important, but non-urgent initiatives) to develop the new solutions we seek. To do so, we’ll start by reframing the questions we are asking.
“The main premise of appreciative inquiry is that positive questions, focusing on strengths and assets, tend to yield more effective results than negative questions focusing on problems or deficits.” - Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas
Let’s start with a question virtually every firm asks: where do we find qualified staff? AICPA PCPS biennial Top Firm Issues Survey has reported staffing concerns (finding, retaining, or developing talent) as a top issue for all size firms for the last 20 years, with the only exception to this being during the Great Recession. It is time to challenge our thinking and ask ourselves if we need more people or if we need more automation.
Instead of focusing on recruiting strategies, consider these questions:
- How much time is our talent performing at their highest and best use?
- What would happen if our talent was performing at their highest and best use at least half of the time?
- What should change about the functions our team members perform?
These questions allow us to consider whether we already have the qualified talent we need to perform the complex, high-value services clients are demanding. Then, it quantifies the impact to the organization if they were performing more consistently at that level. This means we need to find alternative ways to complete the tasks below their skill level.
Many professionals I speak with indicate they are spending much less than 50% of their time performing at their highest and best use. The reason given is, “I have no one to delegate to.” This is where we need to reframe the question “Who do I delegate to?” What if we explore ways to leverage hardware, software and services to create more capacity. One example is the exponential increase in the implementation of robotic process automation (RPA) during the pandemic. RPA is a software bot that interacts with applications just like the end user. It is ideal for highly structured, repetitive tasks. The use of RPA reduces the need for staff to perform these tasks and allows them to focus on more complex and personally rewarding functions that creates more value.
In a follow-up brainstorming session, imagine you are starting a practice from scratch. How would you build it? Consider the availability of smart machines, artificial intelligence, remote collaboration tools, and talent with specialized skills. How would you restructure your teams, processes, and engagements? What skills will you need on the team to build and support future relevant services? In 2024 new CPAs will pass the CPA exam with a core competency in technology. What can we do now to prepare for that change in talent and incorporate new methodologies into our existing practice? What will those professionals expect to see in firms?
To transform, let’s ask: what functions need to be performed in a new way? Notice I didn’t say who needs to perform the task but encouraging ideating all options. In the age of automation, we should look to the tools available to us to find new alternatives.
Discussing automating jobs currently performed by staff can be a sensitive subject. Team members can get worried about the security of their own jobs or those of colleagues. These fears can keep them from contributing to idea generation. As a part of this discussion, revisit why these discussions are taking place; teams are overwhelmed, burnt out, and we need to find solutions to expand capacity. Also, commit to reskilling the talent where needed, so they are future-ready and equipped to add value to clients and the firm.
“Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn,” Herbert Gerjuoy, psychologist
After the immense amount of change we have had over the last few years, you may be thinking “I want a break from change! Why would I initiate these discussions?” That is understandable, and you should pause to celebrate your successes and those of your team. Then, begin planning for the next busy season and the next better. Your team members want to know how next year will require fewer overtime hours and less overwhelm. Try reframing the question of staffing from the perspective of what you can automate. Embrace the learning mindset. We have to set aside the time to consider new solutions.
All the best,