Mapping the Road Ahead

We've all seen the vision. But how do we get there from here?

The CPA Vision Process is a nationwide initiative intended to gather input from CPAs in all segments of practice to create a unified and comprehensive vision of the profession's future. Led by a coalition that includes representatives of the American Institute of CPAs and state CPA societies, this ambitious undertaking is designed to help the profession

  • Keep up with the marketplace's changing demands.
  • Identify and prepare for future opportunities and challenges.
  • Redefine and leverage its core competencies and values.
  • Draw together to create a vibrant, viable future.

Early on, the process incorporated input from a variety of sources—research and planning professionals, users of CPA services, other financial professionals, elected officials, accounting educators, students, the leadership of CPA organizations—as well as research into global forces. This information provided the foundation for more than 175 "Future Forums"—daylong visioning sessions held throughout the country in late 1997. More than 3,000 CPAs took part in these exercises, which included trend analysis, scenario planning and identification of future issues, values and competencies. Delegates from the forums, chosen by the state CPA societies, attended a National Future Forum held in January.

Vision Statement
CPAs are the trusted professionals who enable people and organizations to shape their future. Combining insight with integrity, CPAs deliver value by

  • Communicating the total picture with clarity and objectivity.
  • Translating complex information into critical knowledge.
  • Anticipating and creating opportunities.
  • Designing pathways that transform vision into reality.

Core Purpose Statement
Making sense of a changing and complex world.

The National Future Forum was both the culmination of the research phase and the inception of the transitional phase of the Vision Process. The task of the forum delegates was to synthesize the grass-roots input and other research into the building blocks for the CPA Vision: vision and core purpose statements (see sidebar) and the national top-five values, services, competencies and issues (see JofA, July98 ,). These vision elements were then refined to improve readability, by advertising professionals under the direction of the vision team.

The next step was field-testing, which began at the spring regional council meetings held in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Nashville and New York City. "Support for the concept and direction of the vision statement was unanimous at all five meetings," says Vision Process Director Jeannie Patton, who is also executive director of the Utah Association of CPAs. Concern over the need to reinforce the profession's foundation value—objectivity—resulted in it being added to the statement.

Testing continued with the external advisory council (EAC), a body formed at the outset of the Vision Process. According to Patton, EAC members reacted positively to the vision statement, describing it as sharp, on target and in line with their thoughts about how the profession could be more successful in the future. They were particularly enthusiastic about the statement's emphasis on communication. Nearly all thought that the vision statement moves the profession away from the role of number-cruncher toward a more desirable role focused on interpretation and value-added service. The EAC anticipated that users of CPA services would react favorably to this evolution.

The vision team reenlisted Yankelovich Partners to test the vision elements with the members of CPA and student focus groups surveyed during the research phase of the process. An overwhelming majority of the CPAs recontacted concurred with the EAC that the vision statement broadens the profession. They also believed it:

  • Describes a future for the accounting profession that is better than what currently exists (a view also expressed by the EAC).
  • Will create more opportunities for them.
  • Will enable them to be more valuable employees and provide a higher level of value to clients.

A third of the CPAs recontacted were not using the CPA designation on their business cards, but half of that group said they would begin doing so if the more broadly defined profession outlined in the vision became a reality.

Of the students recontacted—individuals who had opted to pursue MBAs rather than become CPAs—most said they probably would have considered a career in the accounting profession had the vision been a reality when they made the choice. They said they believe the top-five values, services, competencies and issues provide flexibility through their breadth, indicate where CPAs should be functioning at high levels and show off a "new CPA look."

Findings from the testing were presented at the AICPA council meeting in May. According to vision team member Janice Maiman, director of communications at the AICPA, there was a great show of support for the direction in which the Vision Process is headed.

The team then spent the summer presenting the vision elements to the state CPA societies and other stakeholder organizations to further build support and begin mobilizing resources for implementation.

"Basically, everyone is enthusiastic, but coming up with an exciting vision isn't enough," says Maiman. "That only determines the destination. Now we need to figure out how to get there from here."

Patton emphasizes that the change mandate isn't just for CPAs. It applies equally to the institutions and organizations that serve the profession. "We've begun talking about what this means in terms of change management inside the AICPA and the state societies, how we all relate and what kinds of initiatives need to be in place to ensure this vision becomes reality."

One crucial aspect of managing the institutional response will be making effective use of institutional resources. "Not every institution can respond to every aspect of the vision," the Vision Process director continues. "Effective interaction—some sort of strategic alliance and interface—among institutions that have a stake in what the vision represents will be one of the most important factors in achieving it. The tendency will be to seek fragmented solutions. Our leadership will have to stay focused on the long-term strategy and outcome. The challenge will be to achieve a balance between unifying the profession and providing segment-based solutions.

"One of the fundamental discoveries of the Vision Process was our predisposition as a profession to focus on our differences, not our similarities," Patton observes. "We need to reverse that. The future is about building alliances and learning how to communicate on a much different scale, which requires all stakeholders in the profession to find ways to work together."

Another challenge acknowledged by vision team members will be retaining the grass-roots integrity of the process as it moves into the implementation phase.

"The vision is the profession talking to itself," says Patton. "It's our voice saying, 'These are the issues we see. These are the things we need to hang onto. This is how we think we need to position ourselves.' It speaks to our diversity, which will become part of our strength if we embrace it. The grass-roots element of this process is what makes it unique and valuable."

To preserve the collaborative spirit that characterized phase one of the Vision Process and serve as a resource as the process moves forward, a grass-roots-based visionkeeper team will be created. Composition of the new body had not been finalized by the closing date for this issue of the Journal.

The vision team itself has been going through a period of transition. John Hudson, vice-president of strategic planning and knowledge management at the AICPA, will be taking over the role of Vision Process director early next year. Hudson, who has been working closely with the team since last May, will assume Patton's role as liaison to the state societies and see the Vision Process through the balance of this transitional phase and into implementation.

The vision will be presented to the AICPA council for official adoption in October, and the full vision report will be included in the December issue of the Journal. Hudson expects two levels of response from the Institute. "The AICPA has an obligation to respond on both an institutional and a leadership level. At the institutional level, the implications are pretty profound in terms of how the organization's mission should change to embrace the vision. Then the revised mission will have to be driven down through the entire strategic planning effort, down through the operating plans and budgets, all the way to the AICPA staff level. There has to be role clarity and individual accountability so that, on any given day, Institute staff members know exactly what they need to be doing to help achieve the vision. "At the same time, the Institute will continue to work with and through the vision team and also the new visionkeeper team to provide leadership and resources to help other accounting organizations embrace the vision," Hudson continues.

The institutional effort described by both Patton and Hudson will get a push forward at a strategy workshop scheduled for January 1999. The conference will bring representatives of the profession's constituent institutions and organizations—the AICPA, the state societies and others yet to be determined—together to share ideas and collectively develop strategies and steps for achieving the vision.

To help firms and individuals begin applying the vision to their own situations, the vision team has been working on an interactive CD-ROM that builds on the vision report content. This resource, expected to be sent out some time next year, will feature highlights of the research, with a searchable database, as well as guidelines and exercises for visioning, strategic planning, self-assessment and skill- and competency-building.

"The Vision Process must be a professionwide effort," Hudson says emphatically. "If it becomes the effort of a single organization—in fact or perception—it probably will fail. Making the vision a reality will require the hearts and minds of the entire profession."

CATHERINE L. CARLOZZI is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer based in New Jersey. She formerly served as associate national director of publications at Laventhol & Horwath.


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