- Software implementations are uncomfortable, and typically take longer and cost more than you initially think they will.
- To avoid implementation failure, appoint an internal champion and dedicate them solely to the project, instead of adding it to their day job.
- Software pilots can be an effective way to demonstrate proof of concept, and boost confidence in a broader rollout.
The pandemic changed many accounting firms’ mindset about technology. If they hadn’t thought about it before, many seized the opportunity to move their systems to the cloud and started taking advantage of cloud-based automation and artificial intelligence software. This represents a significant change for an industry that was – for a large part – sitting on 20-year-old systems. And firms now appear to be taking a collective breath to reflect on how far they have come and how much further they have to go.
PKF Newcastle and Sydney (PKF NS) is a case in point. The implementation governance team – which comprises the chief financial officer, a technical director and business advisory partner Stacie Shaw CA – has called a hiatus on any new software for the next six-to-12 months. The firm recently moved to the cloud, then plugged in 17 additional apps.
“There’s a bit of change and tech fatigue,” Shaw says. “We’ve been so focused on just getting new technology in and working so teams can do their day job, there’s still a lot of sparkling new features sitting in the china cabinet that we’ve yet to take advantage of. Getting that functionality implemented is what will drive the automation and efficiency we set out to achieve in the first place.”
Early adopters like PKF NS will be deep-diving on the technology they have acquired, according to accounting software savant Trent McLaren, while others play catch up.
“Firms are getting better at picking technology because they’ve been burned previously. It’s shiny object syndrome; they’ve bought all of these things but only implemented one of them. I don’t think that will happen again,” says McLaren, co-founder of Journey, a company that helps software companies specialising in accounting.
Identify your pain points with your vendor
Luke Bebbington CA, CFO practice lead at Workday in Auckland, has no doubt the days of the bookkeeping accountant and Excel reporting are nearing their end.
“No accountant wants to be doing reconciliations all day. Excel files cannot drill down to the drivers behind a 4% increase in revenue. The accountants of the future are there to advise the business and provide it with insight,” he says. “Once you’ve understood your vision for finance, you can then assess the tools and software that are needed to make it happen.”
However, in their haste to acquire new software, firms can sometimes lose sight of the problems they want to solve. Adem Turgut, CEO of SolveXia, advises accounting firms to understand the root cause of the problem and the processes involved, before seeking out a software solution.
“It sounds like common sense, but there are plenty of organisations that have skipped that step and gone straight into solution mode,” he says. “The moment you start talking to salespeople, they are going to tell you they can do everything you need and the worst-case scenario is when their features become your business requirement.
“The moment you start talking to salespeople, they are going to tell you they can do everything you need, and the worst-case scenario is when their features become your business requirement.”
“Not every problem is ready for a technology solution. With a process that has a high degree of uncertainty in terms of it changing every week or month, or if people doing the work have little knowledge of the process, that adds complexity. I think you need to acknowledge that and solve that path first,” he adds.
When it comes to choosing a provider, McLaren recommends opting for those with intimate knowledge of accounting processes and who take an educational approach to implementation.
“You want them to say: ‘What normally takes you an hour is now going to take you five minutes. Let me show you how that works’. That is a lot better than: ‘Let me tell you about the features and benefits’,” he says.
Assign a champion
One of the main reasons for software implementation failure is the lack of an internal champion who has the authority and time to commit to the project.
Bebbington recommends dedicating a resource 100% to the software implementation project, instead of adding the project to someone’s existing day job.
“Ideally, the project champion will understand the business and the strategy well, as well as be someone with strong stakeholder relationships who can bring in the right executives when needed,” says Bebbington, who has previously led two global finance transformation programs.
“They should bring the finance team, the technology team and the business on the journey. A successful implementation is not just managed by the project team: it should be owned by the entire business. You need to collaborate effectively across all functions to get the buy-in required.”
For smaller-scale implementations, an internal champion is just as important, according to Ignition’s Ethan Cooney. He advises small and medium enterprises to have a champion who will actually be using the software in their day job, instead of a partner who is likely to remain high level.
“The partner should have a role in communicating the ‘why’ to the team, but they shouldn’t necessarily be the ones rolling the software out. That’s where we see the most stuff-ups,” says Cooney. “If it’s practice management software, you need to make sure that the practice manager and administrative staff are integrated into the implementation process.”
Testing, testing, testing
Some form of pilot or small-scale testing not only helps to prove the concept works, it also boosts morale and confidence for a bigger rollout.
For PKF NS’s practice management software, Shaw was initially of the view that a pilot was not necessary, until the vendors cautioned her against it.
“I’m very glad we did the pilot because it showed us that if we had gone live with what we had, including 16 years’ worth of rubbish data, we would have been no better off. If you’re moving from one system to another, you’ve got to change the data that’s going in or the process behind it, otherwise you’re not going to get a different result,” she says.
The firm’s governance team worked with representatives from each division to trial everyday tasks – such as raising a bill – to find out what worked and what didn’t.
In Bebbington’s experience, you want to slowly expand the number of people testing the new software to mitigate any causes for surprise once you go live. He recalls a UK organisation that experienced big challenges after the golive date because only the leaders tested the software. The team was ‘too busy’.
“Accountants get really stuck on the today. You’ve got to prioritise the future. It can involve making some tough calls, particularly around resourcing day-to-day activities. You need to bring everyone along for the journey, otherwise there will be resistance to the change,” Bebbington says.
Vendor or internal training?
Software is more intuitive these days, but that does not negate the need for some form of implementation training. McLaren says vendors are getting punchier at providing training, but firms often do not have time to engage with it. In fact, Ignition’s offers of one-to-one training sessions, webinars and best-practice guides are often not taken up by firms.
“Make sure you have the capacity and willingness to engage with the training. That comes back to having a champion who can drive the process,” Cooney says. “Team training and webinars would be the most popular among our clients, but make sure the whole team attends and not just one person.”
Shaw vets a vendor’s training offer first to address potential nuances and to avoid answering five hours of questions from staff after the training has been delivered.
For PKF NS’s cloud implementation, Shaw ran an internal webinar for 380 staff across Australia and India, alerting them to pain points, the internal helpdesk and training materials.
“I never tried to rely on the vendor’s helpdesk because they’re also a helpdesk for all of their other customers. We have our own internal helpdesk email for our team to come to and we escalate to the vendors only in need,” she says. “Often, vendors have a support section or help guide, but we typically write our own cheat sheet. The team knows to look at those first, before logging a question.”
Set uncomfortable expectations
There is no way to sugarcoat it: software implementations are uneasy and uncomfortable. Having hard conversations upfront about how long a project is going to take and what it’s going to cost until the benefits start flowing can prevent many a headache.
Shaw notes that while some of their wins have been quick, PKF NS’s timeline for implementation can be likened to slowly boiling a frog – some benefits have been delivered so gradually the team needs to be reminded how far they have come.
“Any timeline that I have for implementation, I now double it. If we’d like to have a piece of software in by Christmas, I will say June,” she reveals.
Aiming for incremental change – the minimal viable product (MVP) in software industry parlance – is better than trying to solve everything at once, or worse, taking a step backwards, says Shaw.
“Play out worst-case scenarios. If you’re happy to accept those scenarios, then you need to be realistic about what the minimum viable product is. The commitment I make to my team is that we won’t go backwards, and I make that really clear to the vendors to cut through their sales pitch,” she says.
Turgut also suggests allowing for budget creep from the start of the project to account for inevitable changes that can ultimately improve the benefits from the software.
“It’s almost impossible for people to know everything they need before a project starts. You end up with additional scope after people start to get their hands on things. You just need to have those honest conversations upfront, when there’s no emotion, and build it into your planning,” he says.
Should you opt for custom software?
Stick with the off-the-shelf product as much as possible, advises business advisory partner Stacie Shaw CA from PKF Newcastle and Sydney. Vendors typically charge for customisations and any upgrades may ‘break’ the customisation, adding another cost. Instead, she talks to her peers at other firms to show vendors a common accounting problem, giving them feedback on how they can alter the software product to improve it.
Internally, Shaw encourages teams to approach her with ideas to customise software, before changing it themselves and creating consistency problems.
Multiple integrations at once?
Journey CEO Trent McLaren says most firms integrate one piece of software at a time, which makes sense because internal resources are usually short in supply. He says governance teams can be helpful where there are multiple integrations, because the team can keep on top of progress and budgets.
Ethan Cooney from Ignition recommends asking the vendor about which order of implementation to take, as they can usually provide helpful advice.
Software to watch
Keep an eye out for XBert, a software solution from a company based in Coffs Harbour. Journey CEO Trent McLaren says this AI auditing software scans client data and files for 77 anomalies three times per day, instead of monthly or quarterly, and builds workflows and task procedures in turn. Sometimes a fix requires one or two clicks. It’s a big saver on bookkeeper hours.
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