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Digital tools transform CPA firms

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Last year, CPA.com — the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants’ digital initiative — collaborated with another company to develop OnPoint, a cloud application that assists in preparation, compilation and review engagements.

It was just one more example of the way that accountants have been swapping their green eyeshades for digital devices. Ralph Thomas, CEO and executive director of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants, said the use of cutting-edge technologies is a current topic of discussion in the profession.

“These technologies and others represent a new revenue source for firms, since CPAs will be able to show companies how to use the deep data that they’re collecting,” he said. “At the same time, accountants and their own firms have to also evolve. As [artificial intelligence] and blockchain become mainstream, data analytics will become even more important, and the way audits are done will change.

People will be able to get at accurate, underlying data more easily, so instead of mundane collection and comparison, there will be more analytical activity highlighting trends and efficiencies.

“In addition to their accounting backgrounds, new hires will also be probably expected to have more technical knowledge, too,” Thomas said. “CPA firms will have to decide how to position new hires to think more like a business analyst, instead of the traditional audit mindset” of identifying and verifying transactions. 

Wilkin & Guttenplan PC is already taking steps to meet the new digital technology, according to Tom Hasard, IT services manager at the East Brunswick-based firm. Staying flexible is a key part.

“We have always worked to evolve our processes over the history of the firm, as we made difficult transitions such as going paperless,” Hasard said. “We are always looking at new technologies with our needs in mind to see where we can leverage cutting-edge technology. We leverage several groups within the firm to investigate new technologies as well as to review our existing procedures for opportunities to find new efficiencies.”

On a day-to-day basis, the firm leverages “several tools to help with our input processing,” he added.

“We have found success with data analytics tools for our audit process, and input automation in our tax practice,” Hasard noted.

One of the firm’s “most significant” software tools is Gruntworx, which Hasard said can automate the sometimes tedious task of reading and inputting data work papers for tax returns.

“We also have internally built connectors to automate pulling information from client systems,” he said.

These and other kinds of new technologies help firms like Wilkin & Guttenplan eliminate some of the “less valuable time from our engagements,” enabling the accountants to focus “on being advisors for our clients,” Hasard added.

Chris Perrotta, Nisivoccia LLP.
Chris Perrotta, Nisivoccia LLP.
“Experts are predicting that the profession will be unrecognizable over the next five to 10 years. We continue to explore opportunities in data analytics and AI to ensure we can remain relevant.”

Chris Perrotta, partner at Nisivoccia LLP

Initiatives like these are delivering efficiencies, but they’ve also been accompanied by some wrinkles.

“The majority of the work that is being automated was traditionally what new staff worked on,” said Hasard. “This has created some new challenges in providing our new staff with enough experience to move on to more advanced work.”

Still, he noted, “Technology skills are definitely of growing importance to us, especially when we find talent that has deep skills in both accounting and technology, which really sets them apart.”

Get used to change

Technological advances may call for an overhaul of some processes, but CPA firms are used to changing environments, said Chris Perrotta, a partner in the Commercial Group at Mount Arlington-based Nisivoccia LLP. He’s also a member of the firm’s technology committee, which meets regularly to evaluate trends in technology that affects accounting firms and could impact Nisivoccia.

“As is the case with most industries, technology has had and will continue to have a major impact on accounting firms,” Perrotta said. “The days of carrying around paper files to clients is a thing of the past, and we are currently 100 percent paperless. Our staff is equipped with their own laptops, dual screens, scanners and printers allowing them to work efficiently from virtually anywhere. They have the ability, through our VPN [virtual private network], to gain access to servers and software at our corporate headquarters as if they were sitting at their desks. We also have a secure portal that allows the transfer of sensitive documents to and from clients.”

Perrotta said the firm is sensitive to the fact that technology is expected to rapidly evolve, changing the way the accounting profession operates. He noted that Nisivoccia plans to keep ahead of the curve.

“Experts are predicting that the profession will be unrecognizable over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “We continue to explore opportunities in data analytics and AI to ensure we can remain relevant.”

Perrotta also recognizes the challenges, as well as the benefits, of the evolving tech landscape.

“As we continue to utilize technology, cybersecurity is a primary concern and focal point,” he said. “Implementing new software could be costly and take several years to fully realize efficiencies. But opportunities include improved efficiencies, higher realization rates and ultimately more time to enable us to advise our clients on how they can be more successful.”

There’s a human element too, noted Perrotta.

“The hiring process will be tailored to find tech-savvy prospects who are able to embrace technology,” he said. “Perhaps accounting majors will no longer be the primary candidates — it will be imperative for colleges and universities to adapt their curriculum to ensure students are equipped with the tools for the future of the profession. Strategic thinking and analytical skills will also be important.”

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