Innovation in a Change-Resistant Industry

The professional financial services industry—and accounting in particular—is in a perpetual state of change. Past solutions no longer guarantee future success; innovative thinking must drive every decision, every day.

Earlier this year, Elliott Davis, a business solutions firm with nine offices across the Southeast, further solidified its commitment to this ideal by appointing Bob Jamison, a longtime employee of the company and its former Chief Information Officer, to the newly created position of Chief Innovation Officer.

Recently, Jamison shared his views on the industry and how transformative thinking will impact the business moving forward.

What are some of the biggest disruptions currently reshaping the professional financial services landscape?

First and foremost, technology— processing power (speed), lower cost, and size of devices have created an environment poised for innovation. As these come together, they have created a multiplying effect, which will impact technology and how it’s used in our business.

We’re also seeing pressure come from outside industries and consumerization of accounting services.  As a result, some of our traditional work will likely go away, a result of replacing labor with technology, competition, or self-service solutions.

Technological evolutions can produce challenges, but they also create opportunities. Will these advances fundamentally change the way you approach client service?

Sure. We’re trying to be proactive as we address the future needs of our clients and our employees. We believe a lot of this will come through data and how we’re able to report on it. The information we collect will allow us to identify new patterns or trends and do more comparative analysis. That will enable us to be more consultative and predictive with our clients.

It also impacts the speed with which we can deliver products and services. We’re now a cloud-based industry and firm, and this has opened up a world of opportunities that never existed before. We can deploy products in weeks or months that used to take years. Our development time is going down, and our time to execute is changing dramatically.

Is this altering the way you staff the firm?

Yes. Starting as early as 2012, we saw a shift in skills toward a more diverse skillset than what you might find in a traditional accounting firm. Traditional IT service skills were remaining flat, and other areas were growing. Around this time, we began hiring more project managers, business analysts, and programmers.

That said, we also know we don’t currently have the capacity to handle the speed at which all of these evolutions are taking place. So, we have developed relationships with strategic entities that offer skills to supplement and balance areas we are lacking time and capacity. For example, software development and data analytics are key strategic areas. We expect it will take two years to transition those skills in-house, and we will continue to explore new relationships as demand dictates.

With respect to Elliott Davis and what you’re trying to accomplish as a firm, how do you define innovation?

I look at innovation in two categories: digital innovation and process innovation, or process improvement. True innovation is difficult and takes years to build; we have to create a culture and framework that supports a different way of thinking.  We have started the innovation process by focusing on culture, creating an ideation platform, enhancing our skills, and building capacity. This will eventually create new products or services that produce better client outcomes. Process innovation really revolves around process improvement and the way we deliver our products and services.

When we talk about innovation internally, our employees automatically think of process improvement. We’ve done this for years, and it will continue to be a focus, not only because it creates efficiencies, but also because it generates new innovative ideas and solutions. It’s pretty broad, but true innovation to us really means providing a product or service that we didn’t offer yesterday.

It sounds like you’re trying to change the entire mindset of the organization. Is that a fair assessment?

Absolutely. What we’re talking about are client issues: We have to understand what our clients want or need, and it’s so much more than a traditional tax or audit report. Our team members must have conversations with clients, asking questions to understand where we can add value. We have to be more involved with our clients’ industries and bring more expertise to client solutions. This approach is really a mind shift for the firm. It’s being anticipatory about where we think industry changes are happening.

What challenges do you anticipate, and how do you plan to address them?

The biggest challenge will probably be the accelerated pace of change and our team members’ capacity to absorb and adapt. Part of the way we’re addressing this is by letting them know change is coming, explaining why the change is happening, and demonstrating the impact it’s going to have. Keeping everyone informed is key, and communicating that we have a plan is critical.

That’s our message to the whole firm: The world around us is evolving, and everyone is expected to play their part. But to do that, we must establish a culture of innovation and send a message from the leadership down that says, ‘We’re going to explore these new ideas. People are going to have opportunities to participate in ways like never before, and we’re going to bring skills that we’ve never had before as we explore new opportunities.’

How will you help employees understand and adapt to their new roles?

Part of what we have to do is explain to our team that we want to explore the ideas and opportunities with clients. But you can’t go out and talk with a client one day and try to provide answers the next. We have to give them time to have those conversations so that there is a complete understanding of clients’ challenges, which then allows us to identify solutions.

We’re also sending a large portion of the firm through training designed to help our team understand how to ask the right questions, how to look for opportunities where we can provide innovative solutions, and how to work in collaboration, not just cooperation.

Does this differ from how the firm may have approached things in the past?

Yes. What we’re doing now is really accelerated. We’ve moved to a more standardized, agile style of work. Part of what we have to do now, from a short-term goal standpoint, is create our teams, understand what resources we have, and determine how we’re going to fill the demand for skills or capacity we may not currently have in place.

How will you measure success?

To be honest, as we explore new opportunities, not everything’s going to work. If it doesn’t work, we’re going to say, ‘No harm, no foul. Let’s fail fast. Let’s move on to something else.’ But this requires setting the tone from the top down. It’s a mindset. It’s a cultural shift where we have no sacred cows. What we did yesterday doesn’t mean it’s what we need to do tomorrow or the next day. We will measure success by outcomes – did the opportunity create or add value?  While some opportunities may take time to realize the outcome, and others will be quick, we will evaluate each opportunity and see where it leads.

Bringing the conversation full circle, how will technology dovetail with your efforts to drive innovation within Elliott Davis?

The technology is just a tool – it’s a mechanism that helps augment the intelligence of our people. Clearly, our client and team member experiences are essential components; they will look different from other firms. By transforming the way our team uses technology, thinks about innovation, and delivers solutions, we’ll differentiate ourselves from others and become the forward-leaning firm that we want to be.

For more information about Elliott Davis and its business solutions, contact your Elliott Davis advisor.