Too Virtual?

It would not be possible to be a “virtual CFO,” or to provide outsourced accounting and financial management services, without technology. Today’s cloud-based and mobile applications have further enabled the development of new entrepreneurial ventures that are based entirely on virtual business models, which rely heavily on outsourcing non-core functions and/or hiring widely-dispersed employees that do not report to a physical office.

But none of this removes the need for face-to-face contact. Or does it?

I began thinking more about this question after hearing a couple of speakers at the recent AICPA Digital CPA Conference. Keynote speaker Simon Sinek spoke about the importance of the real human connections that can only be established and maintained through in-person contact, and this validated my belief that face-to-face contact is even more critical as we become more “virtual.”

But later in the day, I listened to a session on generational differences and their implications, facilitated by Jennifer Wilson of Convergence Coaching. Wilson noted that, in a survey on how various generations perceive each other, Millenials (those born from the early 1980s through the early 2000s) were described as over-relying on technology and being “too virtual.” My first reaction was that we Generation X’ers ought to be quite pleased with ourselves, for we have struck a perfect balance, haven’t we? After all, we embrace technology and leverage it fully, while still recognizing the value of face-to-face interaction and ensuring that it is part of our business relationships. Simon Sinek would be proud.

But then I began to wonder – are Generation X (and the Baby Boomers) blinded, by their own experiences and perceptions, to the generational forces of change? Are the Millenials, and the generations that follow, going to hold the same convictions about the importance of face-to-face meetings? After all, as I once read somewhere, they are “technology natives,” the equivalent of having grown up speaking the language of technology, whereas it is just a second language for Generation X. Perhaps the affection the older generations have for direct human interaction is driven by a pre-technology upbringing and nostalgia that the younger generations will simply not share?

I think Sinek would dispute this; he would say the desire for face-to-face contact is a fundamental human need. One of my clients astutely observed that the use of emoticons is an acknowledgement of the shortcomings of digital interaction – a feeble attempt to add some emotional, human context that is missing without body language, laughter, or facial expressions.

I hope Sinek and my client are right. Either way, I will continue to build my professional relationships the only way I know how, the only way that is truly enjoyable and rewarding: by balancing today’s technologies with a liberal dose of real, live interactions.

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Thoughts on the 2013 Digital CPA Conference

Along with three of my Fesnak colleagues, I attended the second annual Digital CPA Conference in Washington, D.C. this past week.

As I wrote in a post recapping the conference for Fesnak’s blog, the first Digital CPA Conference was launched in 2012, in response to the proliferation and maturation of cloud-based technologies, which simultaneously challenge traditional modes of operating in the accounting profession while creating exciting and unprecedented new opportunities. While these challenges and opportunities run the gamut from social media to generational trends in virtual/mobile workforces to efficiencies in document management and workflow, chief among the new opportunities is what the AICPA calls “client accounting services” enabled by cloud-based accounting applications.

“Client accounting services” is the AICPA’s term for finance and accounting outsourcing (FAO), a type of business process outsourcing (BPO). I prefer the term FAO over “client accounting services,” not only because it is more widely known, but also because it more accurately captures the breadth of services provided. After all, it is not just accounting; it is financial management, inclusive of financial planning and analysis (FP&A) and virtual CFO services. And “client accounting services” could be anything; the term does little to distinguish a robust BPO offering from old-school bookkeeping or write-up services – ironic, given the AICPA’s aspirations for “client accounting services” to supplant these traditional services with a more value-added, “trusted adviser” role.

Also ironic is that FAO is not at all new; it has been performed for years, if not decades, by outsourcing service providers such as the Big Four accounting firms and, today, by industry leaders such as Accenture, Genpact and Capgemini. What is new, however, is the concept of FAO as a core service offered by small, mid-size and second-tier national CPA firms. Indeed, there is a vast market opportunity for these firms: While the largest multi-national enterprises outsource to the aforementioned leading providers, emerging growth and middle market companies lag far behind in their adoption of FAO (see HfS Research / KPMG study here, and ACCA / HfS Research study here). As these small to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) enter the market to procure FAO services, who better to meet the demand than the CPA firms that are already entrenched in these market segments?

The 2013 Digital CPA Conference provided plenty of great content from thought leaders such as Simon Sinek, Geoffrey Moore, Jennifer Wilson and others, and I appreciate the AICPA’s efforts to help CPA firms leverage new technologies, optimize new service opportunities like FAO, and navigate change and complexity in general. However, I think the Digital CPA conference is already at a crossroads in its short life. Although the conference addresses a range of technology-related topics, the central theme in both 2012 and 2013 has been cloud-based accounting applications as an enabler for developing “client accounting services.” Many of the sessions were geared toward firms that are just now thinking about, or have only recently launched, such initiatives. This is all positive. But as FAO continues to become a more prevalent offering at CPA firms, there will need to be a conference devoted  exclusively to outsourcing, just as there are audit and tax related conferences.

An “FAO Conference” (I’ll leave it to the marketers and event planners at AICPA to come up with a catchy name) should definitely address technology. But as Digital CPA speaker Bill Reeb noted, technology is just a tool. There are so many other areas that could be, and would need to be, addressed in an AICPA outsourcing conference. These include, but are by no means limited to: pricing strategies and contract negotiations; competition from non-CPA firms; the clash between the new outsourcing services and existing professional standards (e.g., for compilations); best practices in various accounting and financial management processes; KPIs for an outsourcing practice; cultural challenges running a BPO operation within a traditional CPA firm; recruiting talent; organizational structure and management of an FAO practice; outsourcing engagement structure and management; etc. (Certain of these topics were in fact part of the 2012 Digital CPA Conference, but at an introductory level only and were understandably not repeated in 2013’s conference, which was again geared toward very early-stage “client accounting services” practices). The Digital CPA Conference could continue to exist separate and distinct from an FAO Conference, with an ongoing focus on emerging technologies across all CPA firm disciplines.

I am not advocating an FAO Conference for 2014; there is not enough time – or, more importantly, demand – to pull it off that soon. But as the next best thing, I would like to see the 2014 Digital CPA Conference evolve to include separate concurrent session tracks for firms that have more mature and robust outsourcing practices, perhaps addressing some of the areas suggested above.

(Disclosure – my Fesnak colleague Nicole Ksiazek serves on the Digital CPA conference advisory panel.)