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.

The Dawning of the Age of the Digital CPA

I recently attended the 2012 inaugural DigitalCPA CPA2Biz Cloud User Conference in Washington DC. The theme of the conference was how cloud technologies are transforming the CPA profession. While the impact on traditional audit and tax services was covered, the main thrust was on outsourced accounting (also referred to as client accounting services), which is enabled by cloud technologies such as Intacct and Bill.com. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants sees outsourced accounting as a very significant growth area for the profession, and the software vendors are doing their part to drive growth through CPA firms, which they see as a primary distribution channel.

Unlike audit and tax, for which there is a huge body of knowledge on best practices and professional standards, the outsourced accounting realm is just now receiving the collective attention of the profession. Sure, standards exist for predecessor services to outsourced accounting, such as bookkeeping and “write-up” work, but those services are rapidly morphing and expanding as cloud technologies enable firms to become virtual accounting and finance departments for their clients.

Outside of the general and keynote speaker sessions, there were a wide array of concurrent sessions to choose from, along tracks categorized as practice management, technology strategy, or hands-on technology training. As partner-in-charge of my firm’s outsourcing practice, I spent most of my time in the practice management sessions, which included topics such as value pricing, staffing, client needs analysis and knowledge management.

A common theme throughout many of the general and concurrent sessions was that cloud technologies are a critical path to offering clients a total solution, as opposed to just selling labor and time to do the same things that clients could do themselves; this favors a value pricing model rather than hourly rates. Another theme was the ability to standardize processes in the cloud so that they can be efficiently replicated. Specialization within industry verticals was also a recurring theme, converging with the broader trend of the market increasingly favoring specialists over generalists. There are many reasons to specialize within industry segments, including being able to offer deep, industry-specific intellectual and social capital. Within the context of cloud technologies, specialization allows for further industry-specific standardization and replication of processes and reports. Another consistent theme was how an outsourcing practice is culturally different than traditional CPA firm practices like audit and tax, such as with respect to staffing, position titles, compensation, pricing arrangements, and management of client relationships.

My firm has provided outsourcing services since its inception eight years ago, and it was refreshing to be able to join with other professionals and thought leaders to share ideas and our collective passion for the value proposition of outsourcing.  Our firm was represented by Nicole Ksiazek on two different panels. There are relatively few firms doing what we do, and that was apparent by the attendance at the conference. There were about 400 attendees, and while one would expect the audience to be the early adopters of cloud technologies, nearly half were only exploring, not using, cloud applications. Even many of the firms held up as examples of leaders in cloud-based outsourced accounting have nascent practices, are in the process of evolving traditional write-up work to the new model, or are serving very small businesses that do not have much complexity.

There is an irony to the automation and related efficiencies that CPA firms can realize through cloud technologies, and it was highlighted by keynote speaker Geoffrey Moore’s own presentation: Automation leads to commoditization. Clients will be able to achieve the same benefits of cloud applications on their own, which will commoditize the outsourced accounting solutions that firms offer. While the cloud is indeed a game-changing enabler that supports the economics and logistics of outsourcing, a company’s decision to outsource its finance and accounting is ultimately going to have to make sense for reasons other than technology alone – which, of course, I believe it does, as articulated in this prior post among others.

As Moore further explained, this tendency toward commoditization challenges firms to differentiate themselves – which, again, is going to be more and more difficult as other CPA firms, and clients themselves, adopt similar cloud technologies. Continuing the cycle, Moore’s answer for the need to differentiate is to specialize; only then can you optimize your offering, before the next disruptive technology comes along and the cycle repeats. So once again, the ability to specialize – in terms of industry depth or other subject matter expertise – is front-and-center. Cloud technology enables a firm to efficiently leverage and apply this knowledge within industry sectors and specialized areas, but the cloud is not an end in itself. While it may seem like a mixed metaphor for a term that calls to mind something floating in the sky, the cloud is only a platform.

Virtual Number Two

I recently read an interesting article by Jack Welch in Fortune magazine, in which Mr. Welch used Mitt Romney’s selection of a running mate as a springboard to discuss the essential criteria for a vice president. The piece was written before Governor Romney selected Paul Ryan, but the article remains relevant in its identification of the attributes of a solid “number two,” whether in politics or business.

As they say, it’s lonely at the top, and Mr. Welch notes that some CEOs feel isolated in their decision-making. This is particularly true for entrepreneurs in early-stage companies that may lack an experienced management team. The concept of a “number two” often implies a clear second-in-command and successor to the CEO. But aside from the succession planning that good corporate governance requires, not every CEO is ready, willing or able to explicitly identify his or her “number two” to the rest of the company or the outside world. Still, the CEO should be able to draw the necessary support from each member of his or her executive team.

Two of the criteria Mr. Welch identifies for a “number two” are having “guts” and being a “partner” to the president or CEO, and I believe every one of the CEO’s direct reports should have these attributes. “Guts” means having the courage and confidence to carry out the difficult responsibility of sharing with the CEO bad news, negative messages percolating among management or employees, or even constructive criticism. In short, it means not being a “yes-man,” and being willing to express disagreement. On the flip side, though, being a “partner” means expressing that disagreement only in private, while always standing as one with the CEO in public. As Mr. Welch notes, it also means that none of the CEO’s direct reports should allow their offices to become places to “slip initiatives through.”

The CFO may or may not be the explicit or implicit “number two” that is ready and able to step in as CEO if needed. Regardless, the CFO – like all members of the executive team – must have “guts” and be a “partner” to the CEO. It falls to the CFO to communicate the hard financial realities of decisions, particularly in a high-growth (and high burn rate!) environment.

Can a Virtual CFO fill this role? Yes! In fact, a Virtual CFO is uniquely positioned to deliver hard messages to the CEO. While a member of the executive team, a Virtual CFO also brings the outside perspective of a consultant and is free from the concerns of internal political dynamics. In early-stage, emerging growth and lower middle market companies, engaging a Virtual CFO enables access to a level of talent and experience that generally is not affordable or necessary on a full-time basis. With this level of knowledge and experience, a Virtual CFO can be an all-around counselor and coach to the entrepreneur/CEO.

Of course, both Virtual CFOs and full-time hire candidates must be evaluated for the necessary attributes. CEOs should encourage their existing CFOs to be candid, and should foster an environment where the CFO feels comfortable sharing conflicting points of view and expressing disagreement in private.

CEOs and CFOs, please share insights about your relationships, and your perspective on the balance between “guts” and “partnership”.