This is the first in YHB’s series on the Top 10 Issues Facing CPAs’ Clients.  Bryan Newlin explores the steps and considerations when planning for a new IT system.

By Bryan Newlin, CPA, CISA, CITP

Question—how do you make tax season even more stressful? Answer: Take an entire firm of accountants, give them a whole new tax platform, new audit workpaper software, and go “paperless”—all at one time.  Thus began my first tax season in public accounting. Luckily, as an eager young buck I didn’t know any different. But for many of my colleagues, the change was so drastic that long days and nights (even longer than a normal tax season) became the norm.  Many describe that tax season like drinking from a fire hose—enormous IT changes, and a whole new way to associate with data. And it demonstrates some of the challenges when implementing a new IT system.

Implementing new IT systems can be a daunting task. It requires a substantial investment including hardware, software, people to make it work, and a learning curve for existing employees.  Time spent learning to navigate a new system is time away from customers and increased service delivery time.  However, if we only focus on the negative effects of technology, we’d still be using green bar paper and our trusty #2 pencil.

In the paragraphs below, I want to encourage you to examine how you can use technology to improve your business and life.  Trying to discuss technology in broad terms and to such a variety of industries as YHB’s clients and friends is challenging.  The examples included here may be on a different scale than your situation, but these principles apply to any situation—individuals, small to medium sized businesses, large financial institutions, non-profits, construction companies, etc.

Identify the Goals
The first place to start when considering new IT systems is to determine exactly what the goal of the IT system should be.  What problems will be solved, what efficiencies will be gained?  New technology should have a purpose.  Great reasons for a new IT system include:

• Making your processes more efficient
• Making products more precise and consistent
• Reducing costs and eliminating waste in the production/manufacturing process
• Make data more accurate and timely

Ultimately, new technology should make information organized and accessible.

Begin the Search
With the goals of a new IT system defined it’s time to begin the search.  There are two ways to start the research process—1) Google (or another search engine) and 2) Talk to others.  Even the most seasoned IT pros start most research with a quick web search to see what software solutions are available. Chances are you’re acquainted with other professionals in your industry. Call them! Talk with them about their solutions.  Call your CPA. We work with many different clients, likely in your same industry, and have seen similar challenges and solutions.

Volumes could be written about the decision process for selecting new software and hardware.  Here are some of the first questions to ask:
• Should the solution be hosted in-house on servers we buy, or outsourced to a third party service provider (such as in the “cloud”)
• What kind of reporting options are available to us?
• How do we back up the data that we create with this solution?
• Are security controls built in to prevent unauthorized access to the data, or to keep employees from erroneously making changes?
• Is it more cost-efficient to hire programmers to do this project on our own?

During this phase, it is incredibly important to include end users in the conversation. The people who will use this technology should have an opportunity to evaluate the software and ask questions.  Not only will they provide insight into the solution, end users who are involved in the selection process have a much higher level of acceptance after it is implemented.

Implementation
At this point your goals have been outlined, the solution has been selected, and it’s time to deploy the new technology.  Before installing any servers or software, end users should be trained on the technology.  Depending on the technical expertise and willingness of employees to adapt to changes, user education should be a top priority.  In many cases, users will begin navigating a new system (maybe an accounting application, Point of Sale, inventory system) and expect the same processes as the old system but only with a different look.  It’s important to demonstrate how the new system will make their jobs easier or more efficient.

There was a company a few years ago that performed a complete migration of their accounting and customer information software.  The change impacted every user in the organization (over 100 employees). Some of the more senior employees chose early retirement over the challenges associated with learning a whole new system.  Don’t underestimate the impact a major change can have on personnel. Make sure they’re prepared!

Work closely with the folks implementing the new IT system.  Ask all the questions you can. If it’s your own in-house IT staff, a Vendor, or a contractor, have them educate you on how the new system works, including the behind-the-scenes technology.

Finally, solicit continual feedback from end users about how they use the new IT system and what they would change about it. Users will have great insight about how the IT system is working and what can be done to improve it.