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Professional services firms must embrace digital agility through 2020

July 30, 2020

Authored by

Edwin P. Reilly, CPA, CA, shared this article

Authored by RSM Canada LLP

Edwin P. Reilly, CPA, CA, shared this article

INSIGHT ARTICLE  | 

An influx of new digital technologies has created disruption across the professional services industry as firms evolve their business operations to become more efficient and improve client relationships. Especially in the current pandemic environment, firms need to address their digital strategy not only to remain competitive but to deliver and exceed the value their clients are accustomed to receiving. But your organization may be a long way from maximizing the potential of new technologies to stay competitive.

Trends in digital transformation affect how companies deliver professional services, but beyond that, these shifts can also challenge the notion of the “expert practitioner.” Professional services firms exist because they have built a business that deploys individuals with specialized skills, expertise and knowledge. However, technology innovation is changing the need for such individualized specialization and in some instances threatening its place in the market.

New technologies such as robotic process automation, artificial intelligence and data analytics may even replace various activities currently performed by expert practitioners as these technologies are more efficient for performing activities such as fraud detection, onboarding, contract/compliance review and audit. These new technologies can not only lower costs, but also enable your professionals to spend more time on helping clients in higher-margin activities.

Professional services firms should conduct a digital assessment to align the business strategy and objectives with the digital investment to keep pace with the technology innovation needed to stay competitive in the market.

We have identified five areas firms should consider to incorporate these emerging technologies into their organization. These will help to empower organizations with digital agility and a culture of innovation:

1. Customer engagement:

As in any industry, a main objective is to deliver an effective, consistent and engaging customer experience. Evaluating how the technology engages customers, third-party providers and external stakeholders is one way to enhance reach and engagement with your customer base and improve services.

Professional services customers are increasingly changing the way they interact with businesses, and firms need to adapt to these changes. Here are some examples of such shifts:

  • Manual activities and services may be automated or done in-house by the client because they are able to use innovative technologies that simplify the process and/or automate audit activities.
  • Clients are demanding greater transparency, efficiency and collaboration.  Leveraging the right professional services automation solution is one way a business can optimize the many moving parts in all their various functions.
  • Firms are enhancing their service offerings and improving their customer service experience by implementing digital platforms in response to customer feedback.

Leading professional services firms leverage technology with customer outcomes in mind. By operating with a focus on customer value, they automate, streamline and eliminate manual processes with the objective of improving their ability to respond to changing customer expectations with speed, accuracy and improved information.

2. Business operations:

With an increasing shift to a remote workforce, leaders should consider how they can improve operational efficiency and minimize administrative burdens on their organization. This includes assessing the maturity level of the technology infrastructure, and whether business processes and workflow are efficiently streamlined to enable remote operations.

Adapting to this environment means firms must maximize billable time, understand which resources and skills are available or needed, and integrate disparate teams working in different locations. Using tools such as professional services automation (PSA) systems, can help to better manage project assignments, improve project tracking, maximize available resources and improve project profitability.

Technology offers plenty of business operations solutions beyond remote workforce management, too. Companies can use technology such as artificial intelligence for document review and legal research. Robotic process automation can decrease time spent by professionals conducting contract review and due diligence. Business intelligence tools have the ability to provide sophisticated and innovative reporting and analytics, allowing firms to make more informed, evidence-based decisions. This can also free up employees to perform more value-added tasks.

3. Employee enablement:

In today’s labor market, attracting and retaining talent can be time-consuming. Younger employees, especially, want to work with firms that are leveraging newer technologies. Employees want to belong to an organization that has an innovation culture; they want to use technology to improve how business is conducted on every level.

Leading firms are leveraging new technologies to provide training and skills-based learning to enhance employee understanding of economics, artificial intelligence/machine learning, critical thinking and data analytics to name a few areas. Professionals who are able to work with and complement machines and tech applications will be better positioned to deliver a higher level of service and enhanced customer experiences.

In addition, a remote workforce—or a hybrid model involving some in-office employees—necessitates providing the right resources to help maximize employee productivity, engagement and collaboration.

4. Secure and stable technology:

As part of any digital transformation journey, it is essential to look at technology infrastructure and networks throughout all areas of the firm, to ensure such systems are running consistently and efficiently. The technology infrastructure also needs to be scalable to allow applications, innovative technologies and business operations to grow in order to align with the firm’s strategy.

As firms use more automation and are fast implementing remote work strategies, there is increased risk to network and cloud solutions. Firms will need to review their technology platforms and security for improved controls, including testing for potential gaps in their IT environment. For example, as companies shift to cloud or software as a service (SaaS) applications, it is crucial to ensure the network environment is secure using technology such as VPN, dual authentication and/or encryption.

Professional services firms need to enhance and expand their approach to security to safeguard the transformative benefits of emerging technologies without increasing the risk of data loss or threats to strategic operations.

5. Data analytics and reporting:

Information as a strategic asset can be an accelerant in your firm’s digital journey. The right reporting, analytics and information delivery capabilities can be transformational and provide access to more useful data from both internal and external sources.

Professional firms will need to take a broader view regarding their data platform. This includes finding ways to aggregate and consolidate data sources, identifying problem areas in the business, and finding opportunities through the use of real-time key performance indicators and analytical reporting.

Summary

In summary, the professional services industry is changing rapidly, and the current economic environment is accelerating these changes. In order to stay up to date and competitive, firms will need to incorporate digital technologies in their strategies and processes. This will increase digital agility, make them better able to respond to the changes in customer demands and remain competitive.

These new technologies can and should be viewed as assets and as complements to the human workforce for revenue growth, productivity enhancement, improved service delivery and increased customer/employee engagement. Several key questions firms should be asking about digital technologies are:

  • How can digital technologies help our firm protect its dominant position?
  • How can these digital technologies help our small firm compete against larger or more established firms?
  • How can technology solutions eliminate bottle necks/pain points, reduce friction, provide greater business and financial transparency, and accelerate growth?
  • Does our firm have a clear line of sight from data to actions in improving operations and customer experience?
  • How can we leverage these new technologies to enhance our service offerings to our customers to create a competitive advantage?

In order to remain competitive and relevant, leaders of professional services firms should strive to answer these questions as they embark on their digital journey with a digital assessment.  Doing so will help companies improve their customer experiences while also addressing the employee and operating principles that will drive growth, innovation and success.

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This article was written by Rhys Morgan and originally appeared on 2020-07-30 RSM Canada, and is available online at https://rsmcanada.com/what-we-do/industries/business-and-professional-services/professional-services-firms-must-embrace-digital-agility-through.html.

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