The Future of Accounting and Consulting:
Connecting People, Processes, and Data
At Intapp Connect21, industry leaders gathered to discuss the evolving professional services landscape and the ways technology can support both their professionals and clients. During the accounting and consulting track, industry luminaries explored a range of topics, including engineering the modern firm and harnessing the underlying power of centralized data. They shared the challenges and experiences within their own firms, and revealed the ways that purpose-built technology helps their firms remain competitive by connecting their people, data, and processes.
Embracing New Ways of Working
The global pandemic expedited digital transformation for many, accounting and consulting firms. The changes and demands of the pandemic era have helped cement a permanent change in how professionals work, what clients expect, and how firms will manage their business. The most discussed trend among industry leaders was talent and the extreme pressure across the industry, both from a recruitment and a retention perspective. This evolution filters down to every aspect of our firms and our industry.
“Firms are people businesses first, not just in what they know, but in how they interact and how they grow as a firm to build a winning culture together,” says Intapp CEO John Hall. “The competitiveness of your firms is driven by the quality, insights, and experience that you can create across your team as a whole. And a differentiated business platform attracts, develops, retains, and motivates your best possible team over the long term.”
The entering workforce has different expectations than even their peers of a decade ago, with shifting needs for work-life balance, work environment, and their preferred tools and technology. At the same time, a new generation of millennial-aged partners is driving different ways of working and the types of tools and technology they’re willing to invest in. Across both groups, workers want to focus on the high-value effort of client advisory and utilize technology solutions to automate the firm’s task-saturated work.
Les Moeller, former Vice Chair of FTI Consulting, muses on the various considerations firms need to take into account to encourage workers. “The work, how inspiring is it? … Am I accomplishing something in the world? I think that’s increasingly important.” Moeller adds that a perennial worker need has taken a step up in importance in the new normal: “Some version of work- life balance” has always been important, but it’s even more apparent “in a world where we’ve learned, frankly, you don’t have to show up [to the office] at all to get the deliverables done.”
The industry has also been forced to embrace new ways of collaborating. Working on an engagement without sitting in a team room four days a week was previously unthinkable. And yet, somehow, it has become possible. In fact, firm leaders are now even quietly pondering whether maybe this way is better.
“We’re just a people firm,” says Greg Bell, Chief Technology Officer for KPMG’s Global and U.S. advisory business. “We like to collaborate more in person […] and then unfortunately like everyone, when COVID hit, we were forced to collaborate and do our work differently — so we had to accelerate a lot of [technology] adoption. And a lot of those early pushbacks became the strongest adopters. They still needed to connect with their teams.”
Indeed, even the most experienced partners are embracing different ways of working. If there was ever a time for innovation within professional services software, that time is now at hand. With pressures on hiring new talent, and the desire to make work more fulfilling, technologies like AI, machine learning, and robotic process automation (RPA) are in greater demand, helping minimize routine tasks and providing a force-multiplier to staff.
However, many firms find themselves just at the beginning of this adoption curve, as leaders learn how to better leverage these new capabilities to help their teams work where and how they want. Many experts agree that operating these technologies in the cloud is the only effective way to provide an adaptive agile enterprise built for the future.
Embrace the Silver Lining
The demands of the last 2 years have helped cement a permanent change in how our professionals work, what clients will expect, and how firms will manage their business. And firms are responding.
“One of my favorite quotes is from William Gibson: ‘The future is here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.’ But certainly, the shifting demands of the past 2 years have allowed us to accelerate and even invest ahead.
— Mark Holman, President of Accounting and Consulting, Intapp
Supporting People: Enhancing Professionals’ Experience
Accounting and consulting firms find themselves at an inflection point with managing their professionals and staff. Around the globe, firm leaders are asking themselves similar questions: How do we think about the digital experiences our professionals have wherever they’re working? How do we create an on-brand, supportive experience for new employees? How do we eliminate unnecessary travel and routine activities to focus on what helps clients succeed? And how do we accomplish this while honoring our clients’ increased cybersecurity and data protection requirements? Tough questions indeed. There’s no doubt that today’s leaders are looking to technology and professional services software to provide those answers more than ever before. No longer does anyone believe that AI, bots, and other technology will replace staff. Rather, they believe technology will only free up professionals to focus on work that’s more meaningful to themselves and the firm.
Recruiting Wisely and Fostering Opportunity
More than in any other industry, professional services firms run on the strength of their people. Unfortunately, top talent is increasingly difficult to come by, and even harder to hold on to. The quality of the professional experience at a firm, including the tools and technology available to employees, have never been more important and can make all the difference in creating a competitive advantage.
“We need these deep functional experts who know an industry inside and out, or know a process inside and out, our technology platform inside and out,” says Bell. “They’ve got a lot of experiences and they don’t want to be shackled; they want to use tools and enablers that can help them force-multiply their value.”
Bell says that KPMG is hiring a more diverse workforce than it ever has before, and the firm is looking for ways to help those professionals be highly effective and efficient. The firm uses digital technologies to guide professionals through firm processes and procedures as well as its data models and sources. But training is still challenging to accomplish while fully remote.
“We’re also savvy enough to know we’re human beings and we’re going to have to find the ways to bring these human beings together,” says Bell. “There’s another aspect, though: […] How do you bring people together and how do you create those bonds […]? How do you blend the real-world experiences — I don’t think we will ever replace the human connection — with technology?”
Fostering firm growth, too, is critical to people- management success, says Moeller. “Why? Because you have staff and people in your business, and if you don’t grow, you can’t give them a future.”
Moeller also advocates for building an intentional career path to promote staff to partner-level roles. “How can you be a partner, have 10 people working for you, and not [have] made any new partners in 10 years? Can you feel good about yourself?” he asks, stressing the importance of mentorship, including “talking to people about what they can do, how they can do better, [and] how you can help them.”
Creating Capacity for Success
Firms can also use technology to gain visibility into staff utilization, allowing leaders to peer into engagements and analyze how professionals are deployed to inform team experiences and professional growth.
Paul Linton, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer at FTI Consulting, recounts an example of how technology can help mitigate resource challenges. In the early days of the pandemic, FTI’s corporate finance business spiked dramatically; these days, the firm sees increasing M&A transaction activity. Throughout these heavy fluctuations, the firm still needed a way to manage new hires and apprenticeships. They focused on “making sure that [new consultants] are getting the experience they want so they can … continue to develop and get to the next level.” Linton continues: “I think some of the tools can help us to do that little bit more effectively.”
Alan Atwell, Partner at RSM U.S. and its Acceleration Center for Innovation, believes in the power of work optimization, and getting the right people working on the right things at the right time. “We’re really looking at being much more intentional about how we accelerate the career path for our talent. And as we do that, we think we can also increase tremendously the value that we bring to our clients.”
Jamie Fowler, Chief Transformation Officer at Grant Thorton, conjectures that the advent of technology will actually flip the apprenticeship model on its head: “Perhaps some of our more experienced people — partners included — are not as comfortable with technology. But the new folks coming in the door, [technology is] part of their lives,” Fowler remarks.
Understand That Your People Value Technology
Firms that use technology to bolster career development for their profes- sionals and staff find themselves one step ahead of the competition.
“Firms are people businesses first, not just in what they know, but in how they interact and how they grow to build a winning culture together. The competitiveness of your firms is driven by the qual- ity, insights, and experience that you can create across your team as a whole. And your ability to create a differentiated business platform attracts, develops, retains, and motivates your best possible team over the long term.”
— John Hall, CEO, Intapp
Streamlining Processes: Improving Key Workflows
Eliminating friction and inefficiencies within individual workflows is one of the best methods for modernizing processes and contributes greatly to a better experience for a firm’s partners, professionals, and staff. It starts with how you organize your teams, integrate and utilize your various data sources, and empower staff to identify and root out the processes that no longer work.
Removing Friction from the Process
Now’s the time to think deeply about the firm’s most important processes, and the degree to which they can be streamlined and automated. Well-planned change management is essential to this effort, particularly when previously manual, decentralized, and often email-based processes are reintroduced with modern supporting technology to increase both speed and accuracy, as well as give partners and professionals more time to spend on strategic and high value client work.
“Part of this work optimization challenge is to take a look and ask, how do we best organize?” says Atwell. “You have to have technology underpinning that, and we’ve been rolling out solutions to help aid us in that [and] monitor it as well.
RSM U.S. is in the process of transitioning some of its tools to help with real-time monitoring, analyzing how the firm deploys staff, and then ultimately creating dashboards that allow leaders to evaluate how client data gets embedded in the firm’s methodologies.
“As we enhance it, we expose greater parts of that technology stack to our clients so they get real-time updates on status, or they get access to a lot of material we’ve been able to produce in the past, and they feel more comfortable about where they are in their journey and their project,” says Atwell.
Automate to Boost Profitability
Firms that use technology to handle commodity services provide more interesting work for their staff all the while keeping engagements more profitable.
“We sell trust — and trust is not cheap, but the market says it needs to be cheaper and cheaper. How do we win the margin war there? I think that’s through automation.”
— Alan Atwell, Partner, RSM U.S.
Driving Profitability with Technology
Fowler sees younger professionals — who bring a fresh perspective to the firm — identifying process improvements. “Most of us haven’t seen the ‘factory floor’ of an audit or a tax return or advisory engagement in a number of years,” says Fowler. But she recounts how new hires bring a unique perspective. “Straight out of college, they see the inefficiencies firsthand — not only the inefficiencies of … their work program every day, but perhaps even that of the clients.”
According to Matt Morgan, Chief Business Process Officer at Teneo, a global CEO-advisory firm, in the professional services industry, firm processes have to be supportive of the talent bringing in the expertise that’s most important to the clients. “The thing that we describe as kind of the bad process of sending emails and things getting lost into the ether can be very wasteful of people’s time, so if we can find ways that make things more accessible so they understand what’s in it for them, it enables them to deliver value for the client — then that’s a good process.”
Atwell identifies engagement pricing as another key target for efficiency improvements. “How do you evaluate pricing when, traditionally, nearly all of the cost of service was tied to labor — and increasingly today, technology, thought leadership, innovation in all of its forms, take on a much more significant component of that model?” he asks. “You have to look at labor, of course, [and] technology, but also value and risk.”
With different pricing possibilities—from traditional fixed-fee to alternative and value-based pricing—firms are stepping back and rethinking the pricing process, and are using data and tools like professional services software to help their teams create successful estimates that lead to the best margin for the engagement.
This is especially true for more commoditized elements, such as internal audits, SOC audits, and tax returns.
Atwell suggests one way firms can remain profitable in the commodity play: “We sell trust — and trust is not cheap, but the market says it needs to be cheaper and cheaper. So, it’s been interesting to pick our spots and look at those places or those products, if you will, that are becoming more commoditized and say, how do we win the margin war there? And of course, I think that’s through automation.” Software can help firms automate big portions of these engagements and reduce human error to produce high-quality client outcomes and still maintain enough volume to make the engagement profitable. Technology also helps takes laborious human effort out of the equation.
As the industry grapples with defining new pricing structures and how they may change the economics of the professional services business as a whole, Atwell remarks that “it’s not just our job to transform our own firms. It is possibly our job to transform the entire professional services arena.”
Learn more about Integrating Processes and Engineering the Modern Firm
Harnessing Data: Leveraging Collective Intelligence
Ultimately, the data underlying firms’ processes becomes critical in evaluating what it takes to deliver quality work, how effort differs across the same types of work, and whether various engagements conclude successfully. It’s critical for firms to harness data insights that help define the true effort needed to deliver a given type of engagement. With that insight in hand, firm leaders can put forth new approaches for pricing and fee generation.
Most accounting and consulting firms now collect data from clients and expect professionals to normalize that data. Advanced technology can give firms a leg up on this often exhausting and frustrating process. “That’s an example of where we see AI and RPA really helping,” Bell remarks. “These are time-consuming tasks that historically were done by people. But now we’re finding the machines are really getting good enough.” Software extracts data more effectively than humans ever could, helping firm professionals build their own taxonomy of common data models. “Our people love when we replace those types of tasks with automation, because it makes them more efficient and more effective.”
Using email-based manual processes does not enable opportunities to grow the firm and increase revenues on either the accounting or consulting side of the business. Morgan believes having an enterprise platform that gathers all the data in the same place can really unlock that revenue potential. “The first step for us in moving off of email was using just some self-developed workflow platforms that could manage the data in an auditable way — where we could look back on things. But what we’re really trying to get out of Intapp is the connection point between so many different data sources that I think really will have the potential to connect risk and revenue opportunities in interesting ways.”
Clients love automation, too. Those professionals who communicate how they’re using innovation like RPA to deliver better service find clients respond positively. “The value that we’re bringing to clients — and finding that new mix — will be really important as the industry progresses,” says Atwell. “Being able to tell the difference between one subset of your client base and another is really important because otherwise you may draw improper conclusions.”
Normalizing data using technology rather than an army of people means firms can become more competitive.
Although engagements still require a human touch, becoming increasingly data-enabled — as firms evolve — is the wave of future, especially as AI accuracy improves. “The experience you get in 2021 is probably going be different than the experience you’ll get in 2023,” says Bell.
Use Technology to Tackle Repetitive Tasks
Firms that automate repetitive tasks enjoy happier professionals who can focus on high-value client work.
“Time-consuming tasks historically were done by people … but now the machines are really getting good enough. Our people love when we replace those types of tasks with automation, because it makes them more efficient and more effective.”
— Greg Bell, Chief Technology Officer, KPMG Global and U.S. Advisory
Unleashing Data-Driven Insights
Accurately analyzing resource allocation, deploying cost-reduction solutions, and modernizing the engagement pricing process helps partners stay engaged serving clients’ most pressing needs rather than spending time on administrative tasks. There’s a race to automate some of these critical processes so they don’t consume valuable resources that could be better used for client development, revenue generation, and other higher value activities. “We should be giving [professionals] a process that they can execute pretty effectively, that’s not going to have too much friction in it and enables them … [to] still deliver on their engagements,” says Bell.
Many firms’ technology strategies center on connecting disparate applications and tools to streamline service delivery and improve client success. Synthesizing client data effectively — to let professionals connect with clients more deeply — provides the best way to facilitate teamwork and stronger outcomes.
Leverage the Power of the Connected Data Ecosystems
By breaking down data silos and providing a single system for users to store and access your firm’s data, you’re able to boost performance, accelerate deal pipelines, maintain confidentiality, and support the governance needs required by today’s global operations.
“In an environment of increasing competition and an accelerating business cadence, we believe an industry-specific platform that supports systems of record engagement and insights is the best way to enable a connected firm that will drive sustained value for your investors, clients, and equity partners.”
— Thad Jampol, Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer, Intapp
Building for The Future
Accounting and consulting firms are embarking on new pathways, taking a strong look at evolving firm processes using deep data insights and automation, and delivering a seamless digital experience for their professionals and clients alike.
Firm leaders are looking for ways to streamline professionals’ key touchpoints, helping them work at their own pace and collaborate seamlessly with clients to provide a differentiated experience. Using intelligent, AI-based software helps firms move faster down the road to firm success.
Creating seamless, data-driven processes that eliminate manual, repetitive tasks leads to happier professionals who are better able to focus on client success. Firms that target these important strategies will find themselves better equipped to compete in the talent war, attracting and retaining the best and brightest in the field and growing their business with satisfied clients.
Invest in What’s Best for All
Firms that focus on technology that helps professionals and clients alike will be more competitive and successful in the future.
“For us, it’s about doing what’s right for our clients, our people, and our partners — and the technologies that we’re investing in and the ways in which we’re changing — we are modernizing our delivery approaches really to provide client benefits.”
— Greg Bell, Chief Technology Officer, KPMG Global and U.S. Advisory
Deploy the Power of a Purpose-Built Platform
By investing in cloud-based connected firm technology with advanced capabilities — including AI-driven insights, integration services, and automation — firms can promote flexibility and productivity within their teams, easily access key data and insights, and create more efficient and measurable processes to attract clients.
Intapp offers a data-powered, flexible platform that professional services firms of all sizes — from boutique firms to large multinationals — can configure to meet their needs and better support their teams. Unlike generic CRM platforms, Intapp leverages built-in workflows to support the entire engagement lifecycle.
Intapp also provides AI-based predictive insights as well as visibility into operational efficiencies, allowing you to re-examine your processes and improve client service. Intapp OnePlace serves as a single source of truth that seamlessly connects systems to internal and third-party data, helping teams across the firm easily add and access data remotely.
Learn more about Purpose-Built Innovations for Data-Driven Outcomes