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Practice automation roadmap: How to get started

AccountingWEB and Sage are collaborating on a series of practical articles designed to help practitioners plan and implement automation strategies within their firms. This roadmap sets out the action points that need to be addressed along the way.

20th Nov 2020
Editor in Chief (interim) AccountingWEB
In association with
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Sage sets out practice automation roadmap for 2020-21
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Practice automation has become the norm for accountants in the 21st century. The way your firm and people operate has no doubt evolved over a number of years and changing the way you work is not going to be easy. 

Once you have accepted the need to change, the best way to tackle the automation challenge is to break it up into a series of discrete steps, just like you approach any other job. 

The sections that follow present a basic outline from which you can build your own automation roadmap.

Define your destination

Every journey starts with a single step, but it really helps to know where you want to go before you set off. Your objectives can be quite limited to start with, for example to speed up turnaround times and completion rates for annual tax returns. Or your transformation could involve restructuring and reorienting your entire firm. Whichever path you choose, get these elements in place before you start:

  • Formulate a clear, realistic goal and remember to put in place smart measures that will help you track your progress.

  • Talk to clients, analyse their characteristics and survey them if necessary to ensure your aspirations match what they need.

  • Involve your entire team - communicate what you want to achieve and why, and seek their suggestions for how and where they think the firm could improve.

  • Build an actionable automation plan - if you’re serious about automation, you need to be realistic. Make time, plan and budget properly for the changes ahead. 

Get your people on board

Firms that involve their people in practice change consistently outperform less collaborative practices. Engaged, motivated team members will transmit those positive attitudes to clients. Here are a few ways to achieve that:

  • Start off by telling your team what you want to achieve and seek their feedback. Emphasise the benefits as you see them and be prepared to modify your plans and expectations based on what they tell you.

  • Set up a multi-disciplinary “change team” to lead the project. Schedule regular meetings where all those involved can focus on the automation project away from day-to-day concerns.

  • Give technology enthusiasts in the firm a role on that team to assess different options, define workflows and train the rest of the team (more on that later...).

  • Recognise, too, that you may not have all the necessary skills within your team and that you may need to go beyond the firm to find the right capabilities.

Review your workflows

Any tasks that are repeated on a regular basis are ripe for improvement. Transferring those activities from humans to systems will improve efficiency and generate returns by saving you staff time and potentially the need to hire more people. 

  • Start by examining where the roadblocks are occurring. The most likely blockages are usually found in bookkeeping and data entry, where scanning and smartphone data capture can speed things up. Also look at onboarding and client communication, client reporting and billing and credit control.

  • Map the workflows involved. What actions need to be taken, and by whom? Where does the task need to go next and what mechanisms are used to record when work is done - and whether payment might be due?

  • For example, imagine what a process such as self assessment would look like if you could remove all the irritating manual blockages: clients are migrated onto cloud bookkeeping systems; ledgers are fed by transaction data capture tools so that more complete, accurate data is available when the tax team needs it. These changes will make it easier to sequence the work more efficiently so that you’ll be able to manage staff better ahead of the traditional January workload peak. This automated approach will become a must-have when MTD for income tax comes into play in April 2023.

  • Not all clients want to be automated. You may need to expand into outsourced bookkeeping to cater for this group - or let them go if they won’t meet your standards for efficient operation.

  • Hunt out all the undocumented spreadsheets tucked away around the firm. All the isolated schedules and activity lists people use to track what’s happening highlight information gaps in your set-up. Work with the people who own them to find alternative ways to give everyone in the practice a consistent view.

Once you have done the conceptual analysis, consider whether a workflow application would help rationalise your processes. Workflow software segments jobs into different elements and details the subtasks that will be done, by whom. These programs work back from the final deadline and organise individual tasks into To Do lists that can be monitored against completion.

Automated workflow mechanisms can make a real difference to practice efficiency if you have the capacity and resources to implement them. However, if this kind of transformation was not part of your original plan, focus on achieving your initial objective before setting off on a new tangent. Automation is a continuous process, so you can pencil in workflow solutions for phase 2.

Anticipate the challenges

No one likes change. Tell staff members what they are going to get out of the project, such as learning new, valuable professional skills and more time to do meaningful work with clients. Give staff and clients time to adapt to new systems. Once they see that automation makes things better for them too, the resistance will lessen. Here are a few pointers from experienced practice change leaders how overcome some common hurdles:

  • Build your automation roadmap around the areas where you can achieve the quickest wins and financial returns. 

  • Don’t just go through an app selection exercise and assume that the project is done. The hard work is only just starting. 

  • Start by testing your new processes with confident, experienced team members and clients to work through any early snags.

  • Remember you’re an accountant! Put a proper budget in place and don’t ignore all the costs involved, including staff training and certification, client training, implementation and any ongoing software maintenance, update or support costs. 

  • Work out how to price your automated services. Will you offer them as part of a menu of fixed fee options, or bundle everything into a single monthly subscription? Adjust your engagement letter to lay out any changes to your fee policy.

  • Once you have tackled all these obstacles, you also need a go-to-market strategy to ensure all your clients and prospects are aware of the enhanced services you can give them.

Education, training and development

People are the most important element in the “people, process and technology” formula for digital transformation. They can make or break your project, so budget adequately for staff training. Accountants will need more and different skills within an automated practice than the technical knowledge they learned so far. Pay particular attention to developing people and data analytics skills within your team - people who are good at both are especially valuable!

  • Undertake a skills audit with your team. Assess their skills and aptitude before foisting new technology on them. 

  • Many traditional accountants are not comfortable jumping between projects or adapting to new tools. You need to identify people with “agile” skills who will be able to cope with faster-changing technology-driven work environments. 

  • Plan ahead to train staff up on specific applications and activities to ensure everyone is fully equipped to work in a more automated setting. 

  • Reach out to local schools and colleges to connect with students who might want to work at your firm in the future. They are likely to have some of the digital skills that you will need.

Where next? Become a problem solver

This roadmap sets out a very simple step-by-step approach. Further articles to come in this practice automation series will build on the different sections to demonstrate how different accountants have put those ideas into practice.

But don’t just follow what’s written here and think purely in terms of automating your current processes. That will only lock in unproductive habits and mindsets. Look beyond the next deadline and consider how the automation project could alter your business in the longer term. 

Once you have worked through your own processes and automation efforts, you can use the same skills to help clients address their inefficiencies.

This automation roadmap draws on the wisdom of too many accountants to mention, but special thanks are due to those whose ideas are embedded within this checklist, including: Chris Downing, Nathan Keeley, Sam Mitcham, Kevin Salter, Geni Whitehouse and Sarah Wynne.

Sage is on a mission to automate data entry and speed up admin for every accounting and bookkeeping practice in the UK. Start streamlining workflows and spend more time helping your clients succeed. Get started today

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By Mubashirkhan
23rd Nov 2020 11:15

Thanks for such amazing information.
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