Accountants undergoing digital transformation: make sure you know which gaps you are trying to fix

Jules Carman, Head of Digital Transformation, Accountancy, Sage

In the first blog in this series, we discussed the fact that any digital transformation project should begin with a cultural assessment to make sure that the technology serves people’s real needs. Once you’ve spoken to your employees and made sure that you understand their problems and concerns, the next step is to carry out a thorough gap analysis to determine what’s causing those problems – and how they can be fixed.

A good guiding sentiment for this step in the process is: what one thing could you fix that would make everyone’s lives easier? Similarly, and crucially for accountants, how are you going to improve the service you offer clients? As we outlined previously, digital transformation initiatives should be led by the goal of discovering and solving inefficiencies and bottlenecks in existing workflows – not just bolting new technology on left, right and centre.

With that in mind, accounting firms that are looking to move towards a digital way of working, need to take the time to review the systems they have in place to identify where change is needed most – and what practical steps can be taken towards fixing them. Moreover, remember that new technology isn’t always the answer – training and process redesign can be just as important.

Identifying day-to-day operational inefficiencies

The first priority should be to review existing systems with the lens of your cultural review and find out where growth potential is being limited. It might be something obvious, like a system that repeatedly crashes or runs slowly. Alternatively, it might be an application that doesn’t integrate with the rest of the workflow, leaving essential information locked in a virtual box and getting in the way of joined-up thinking.

Accounting firms’ IT landscapes tend to evolve organically over time – particularly among longstanding companies that have made the full transition from pen and paper to the cloud over many years – which means that often they don’t operate smoothly as one system. Over time, you add an application here and grow a deployment there, and although each addition may address a particular need, the whole can become siloed if the holistic needs of employees and clients aren’t properly considered.

During the gap analysis stage of a project, the goal is to define where these siloes have appeared. Are there two applications doing the work of one? Is it possible to consolidate multiple workflows onto a single system, or a single provider, to allow freer information flow between them? By asking these questions, accountancies can save themselves time and money, while improving employee experience.

The analysis may well uncover areas where new technology is required, however. Where new market requirements or regulations demand it, there may be a need for a capability that existing systems can’t provide – in which case, it’s essential to approach the implementation with an understanding of how the new deployment will work alongside existing technology.

Don’t play it safe

However, identifying these gaps and siloes is not always straightforward. Your employees might not be that keen on having their problems fixed. Why is your practice avoiding change for the sake of it rather than pushing for maximum value? People get used to certain ways of doing things, and can end up perceiving change as a greater burden than their current inefficiencies: better the devil you know.

The simple fact is that most often, that approach is shortsighted and stubborn rather than pragmatic. Accounting firms that don’t grow are likely to end up regressing. If staff resist digital transformation simply because they don’t want to go to the trouble of learning how to use new systems, the upshot will be that they have to deal with increasingly inefficient systems as time goes on – which helps nobody.

The question is not whether your practice will need to undertake a certain amount of work to improve efficiency – it’s why and then when. So better the devil that future proofs the practice rather than the one that traps it in the past.

In practice, that means that, just like cultural assessments, gap analyses should always be run with one eye to your people. Education and accountability should be part of any gap analysis, helping employees to understand the benefits of undergoing change. That might mean running pilot schemes and collecting detailed feedback, providing detailed explanations of what’s going to change and why, and making sure to listen to concerns and worries throughout the process.

Crucially, though, planning for digital transformation should be conducted with the overall good of the practice in mind. If ingrained inefficiencies get in the way, it’s essential to find a workaround that works for everyone.

Adapt to new expectations

That’s particularly important because the drive towards digital transformation in accountancy is coming from clients first and foremost. Accountants need to improve their practice’s systems to ensure they can meet growing desires an employee-centric, client-centric, data-driven service. Modern firms need to be more than just accounting experts (although the core skills are still important).They need to be able to provide holistic, consultative strategic business advice.

For that reason, it’s essential to review your client-facing systems for gaps as well. Where are there siloes which could be broken down to provide a deeper understanding of client processes and business models? How can you join the dots so that employees can add value to clients beyond the balance sheet? Technology should be an enabler for these changes, giving practices the analytical tools and data visibility they need to step into a more advisory role.

In short, new technology deployments should be about solving people’s problems, both internal and client-side. Take the time to hone in on specific problems and inefficiencies – only then can you make an informed decision about which technology to implement. The future is digital – but people are still at the heart of accountancy.