Technology lessons from the pandemic — and beyond

The ninth annual accounting technology roundtable explores what the COVID-19 quarantines taught us about the ability of accountants to adopt and adapt.
By Jeff Drew

Technology lessons from the pandemic — and beyond
From left: Image by Metamorworks/iStock; Image by Adamkaz/iStock; Image by Olaser/iStock

For years, some accounting firms and finance departments resisted shifting any, much less all, of their critical data and IT systems to the cloud. And very few firms and finance departments supported all of their employees working remotely at the same time.

That all changed with COVID-19. The pandemic and its associated quarantines forced many firms and finance teams to figure out how to function when no one could go to the office. And, in many cases, the changes had to be made overnight.

What did the coronavirus crisis show about the accounting profession's ability to adapt? What technologies played the biggest roles in the shift to a work-from-home world? And what tech trends can accountants expect to see in the longer term?

Those topics were among the key issues addressed in not one, but two accounting technology roundtables held this year — one in early March and a follow-up discussion in early May to assess the COVID-19 fallout. We are presenting the roundtables in two parts. This article includes a discussion of robotic process automation along with topics related to COVID-19.

The full COVID-19 roundtable podcast can be found here. Please note that the transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Short profiles of the panelists — Donny Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA; Amanda Wilkie; and Nikki Winston, CPA — are available at the bottom of the page.

How did the COVID-19 crisis affect the way you and your firm use technology?

Wilkie: A lot of firms already had remote work policies, but there were some questions: "Can they really be that productive? Can we really support everyone working from home?" Guess what? You can if you really have to, and right now you really have to.

There are firms that implemented Microsoft Teams a year, 18 months, two years ago, but they didn't really get the adoption they wanted. We talked to firms that said they were going to implement Microsoft Teams in the summer [or] in the fall, but they went ahead and did it due to the pandemic. And the adoption is just through the roof.

Winston: I have to say, especially with Microsoft Teams, I'm learning about a lot of those little-known functions. I used it a lot to communicate with my team via instant messaging, but now it's, "Oh, there's a whiteboard. Oh, we can share files here. Oh, you don't even have to open Outlook; you can just open Teams, and it'll drop you right into the meeting." In addition to trying to discover new technology solutions, it has forced us to dig deeper into the ones we already have, especially with a lot of companies trying to manage their cash flow.

Which whiteboard application are you using for remote meetings?

Wilkie: Miro (formerly RealtimeBoard).

Shimamoto: The tool built into Microsoft Teams.

We heard a lot of concerns about security related to working from home. What would you say are the two or three biggest things accountants can do to keep home IT as secure as possible?

Shimamoto: Make sure that any personal devices are up to date on patches and have anti-virus protection. Those are probably the biggest ones there.

Winston: Especially from a business continuity standpoint, we're seeing a lot of clients who realize that they should've taken time and put a disaster recovery plan in place or should have identified their critical business processes.

Wilkie: I love that you use business continuity because we often think about disaster recovery, and losing an office or losing power to a natural disaster is a lot different than everyone having to stay at home.

For example, you've got multiple people trying to work in the house. Do you have enough space? Are you comfortable? Can you be productive? Is everything ergonomic? Are you risking your health and your well-being in the long run for the company? And I'm definitely getting into some of the nontech stuff, but what is the firm's responsibility in that situation versus the individual's? And I think the hard truth is we're never going back 100% to the way that we were, so firms are going to have to look at the long term. We're still going to be working remotely, and now the profession has proven that we can be productive, and the mindset is changing.

I also think it's interesting that one of the things that has changed is six months ago it was absolutely taboo for a kid or pet to be seen on a Zoom meeting. And now it's like, "Hey, come on in here, Billy. Meet the team." And I think one of the positive things coming out of this is that we can now be so much more human and the technology is still keeping us connected as such.

Winston: Yeah, I'm so glad we got to this topic because there is no Amanda at the office and Amanda at home. It's one person now. You can't separate those into two different people now. And so I've seen cats. I've seen dogs. My kids have jumped into a couple of Zoom meetings. It's definitely a lot less judgmental type of situation.

Wilkie: I think we're going see this as a catalyst for changing the way that we look at productivity. Does it have to be 8 to 5? Or is it about what you can get done in the time that you have?

And bringing it back to kind of the technology piece, what technology do you need to be that productive and to illustrate and improve that productivity so that we understand the value that you're bringing to the firm and the value that you're bringing to the clients? I think there's a huge catalyst for a shift in the mindset but also a shift in the technology that supports that new mindset.

Shimamoto: We've seen a big uptick in firms, actually not just firms but business and industry as well, asking about workflow management and project management and task management software, which does allow you to then track what your teams are doing remotely and where they are in progress on things. One of our teams just started using Planner in Office 365. We also have Microsoft To Do with our Office 365.

Wilkie: To your other, earlier point, Donny, you're using the tools that you have. You found a pain point, and you found a tool that you already had to solve that pain point. I'm sure you're going to go back in the long run and ask yourself, "Is this really the tool that's right for us? Do we need to invest in something that's more robust?"

Nikki, how have you used robotic process automation (RPA) to make your firm more efficient?

Winston: As a busy mom and entrepreneur, I'm always looking for ways to automate things in my business, especially those repeatable processes. I'll use CPA Exam coaching as an example. When candidates sign up for coaching services, they all go through a similar process. They select a package, sign the agreement, and pay the invoice. The completion of those tasks triggers an automated workflow that I've created to send the onboarding emails and give the CPA candidates access to study guides and practice questions without having to wait for me to push a button.

Automation creates the consistency that ensures you don't miss any steps, which is great for firms that are just starting out and still trying to figure out how things should operate. It's also helpful for firms needing to get new staff up to speed. That workflow is almost like the blueprint to show employees how things should be done.

Have you tied together multiple applications in this automation?

Winston: Yeah, I've created a technology stack integrating things like Slack and Gmail and calendars and just figuring out through trial and error what works best.

Are you using something like Zapier?

Winston: Yes. I also use Zapier to post articles on different social media. If I post an article on LinkedIn about the CPA Exam, I don't want to have to manually post it on Instagram and post it on Twitter. So I set up a Zap that automatically feeds articles I post on LinkedIn into my Twitter feed and my Instagram feed.

That's a good segue into the next question. Donny, can you talk about the difference between RPA and automation powered by artificial intelligence?

Shimamoto: Sure, and actually we should go back because you mentioned that what Nikki was doing is robotic process automation, or RPA, and it's actually not. What Nikki was doing was just traditional automation, where we've got different events and triggers, and the software through different APIs [application programming interfaces] is actually moving data or responding to events that occur among different applications.

RPA really is trying to address the situation where there isn't an API or there isn't integration available. Think of it as this robot that's kind of sitting at the computer, and when something happens in one system or if it has a list to work off of, the robot is actually moving things or triggering things to occur in a different system. But it's really actually replacing the human that would normally have to do that.

If Zaps are not RPA, then using Zapier is different than using something like Automation Anywhere, correct?

Shimamoto: Right, because with your Automation Anywhere, UiPath, Nintex, it's like they are the robot sitting at the workstation. That sounds high tech, but you don't have to be an IT person anymore to build a robot and deploy it. There are tools today that make it very easy for a non-IT person to "train" a robot. What you actually do is walk the robot through what you want it to do, and it sort of records the steps: Double-click on this icon when the window opens up. Open up this menu and do this thing. Go back and look at the Excel spreadsheet and enter this information.

Nikki, what you did was very impressive because you got your baseline automation going with Zapier. Now when Zapier can't do something because the API or an integration isn't available, that's the time to start thinking about having an RPA robot do that because the process you are trying to automate is still very consistent. It's still very standardized.

Consider this example. When a firm gets an 8879 [IRS Form 8879, IRS e-file Signature Authorization] from a client, the next step is to go ahead and e-file the return. Now the form may arrive via your portal or via email. You can train a robot to recognize that an 8879 has arrived in one system and then trigger the e-filing. Before RPA, an admin would have to do it.

Similarly, the next step after e-filing is to check it every day to see whether it has been accepted or rejected. It's a perfect job for a robot because you are essentially telling the robot: "Here's the list of things that have been e-filed. Go into the software and check to see whether it has been accepted or rejected." You can't check the accept/reject decision with a Zap because there is no API between the IRS system and your systems.

Wilkie: I know a firm that has done just that, and when their little robot sees that the return has been accepted, it automatically updates their workflow process, which then, of course, starts triggering other things, such as billing for that client.

Winston: I love that. I'm going to add that to my workflow.

We mentioned Automation Anywhere and UiPath, but are there any other RPA product names accountants should know?

Winston: I think before any of that, the key is to really understand your business from the inside out. How things work, how a task goes from point A to point B. Understanding what inputs and actions are needed to see an engagement through to completion. The technology is great, but the limitation is that the technology is doing what we tell it to do. It's only going to be as effective as the steps that are written behind it.

Wilkie: As for the list of RPA technologies, I would add that Microsoft has Power Automate, which is part of Office 365. Most folks who have an Office 365 subscription already have access to it.

Shimamoto: I'll add two other ones. Blue Prism is also an RPA platform, but that one and Automation Anywhere are higher-end and more expensive. Another one that's more non-IT friendly is HelpSystems Automate.

I agree with Amanda that Microsoft Power Automate is interesting. A lot of people don't realize they have it if they have the Office 365 enterprise plans.


Automation technologies mentioned

(Listed alphabetically)

Robotic process automation: Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, HelpSystems Automate, Microsoft Power Automate, Nintex, and UiPath.

Traditional (API required): Zapier.


The panelists

Donny Shimamoto, CPA/CITP, CGMA, is founder and managing director of IntrapriseTechKnowlogies LLC, a specialized CPA firm that helps small and midsize businesses manage their technology, risk, and growth.

Amanda Wilkie is a consultant with Boomer Consulting and former chief information officer with top 30 accounting firm WithumSmith+Brown.

Nikki Winston, CPA, helps candidates prepare for the CPA Exam and provides small business accounting, controllership, and advisory services through her firm, The Winston CPA Group.


About the author

Jeff Drew is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4056.


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