Empowered and enlightened: Examining the profession’s big issues at Empower 2023

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Last Updated September 29, 2023


*This blog post is part of the June 2023 Thought Leader newsletter

Darren Root headshot and byline

I recently returned from our Empower 2023 conference in Colorado. Our team worked hard on putting it together, and staff and attendees alike had a great time catching up with each other, welcoming new attendees and engaging with one of our best session/presenter lineups ever.

You know, even after all these years of working in the profession and attending conferences, I’m surprised by how much I learn at our events. Not necessarily about the topics, although I do always learn from them. But about our attendees…which this year included both member and non-member firms for the first time.

This year, there were three “big issues” that occupied thoughts: moving firms into the cloud; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI); and artificial intelligence (AI). I’m going to talk a little about each one, and why I think they’re so important for modern firms.

Firms in (and out of) the cloud

In today’s profession, it’s table stakes (minimum requirements, for non-poker players) for firms to operate in the cloud. There’s a reason for that. In addition to flexibility, scalability, cost, automation and efficiency, when firms move their operations to the cloud, they gain other advantages over non-cloud competitors:

  • Improved collaboration and client service—Staff and clients collaborate remotely in real time, using apps that enable smooth document exchange.
  • Disaster recovery and business continuity—Strong backup and disaster recovery features mean losing data to hardware failures, natural disasters or other emergencies are a thing of the past in the cloud.
  • Data security—Reputable cloud service providers use reliable data centers, encryption, firewalls, data backups and other robust security measures needed to effectively protect sensitive financial data.

And yet…with all these advantages, I was surprised to learn when the “Moving your firm to the cloud” session moderators, Anna Skowronek and Robert Prusa, polled the audience that more than a third of the attendees still aren’t in the cloud. There are several understandable reasons for being hesitant—cost, a server that’s still running well, no IT department to handle the transition, security fears.

But I thought the panelists interviewed (Will Roderique, Baker Davis Roderique CPAs; Risha Mitchell and Sean Hanthorn, Root Advisors) addressed those concerns quite thoroughly. Most telling, all three agreed they’d go through it again, even given any speed bumps they encountered in the transition process.

Don’t worry; I’ll spare you my usual “You need to be in the cloud NOW” speech. But I will humbly implore you to think seriously about how much better life could be for you and your team in the cloud.

Diversifying the profession

Day two’s opening keynote, “Unlocking fearless inclusion,” was an incredible eye-opener for me. Jina Etienne, CPA, CGMA, CDE® and CEO of Etienne Consulting LLC, used her background as a CPA to not only talk the talk about DEI, but she helped us see how to walk the walk.

Jina worked in public accounting for 21 years (including 17 years running her own CPA firm) and today runs her own DEI consultancy practice. So this was a speaker who knew her audience.

She’s a passionate advocate of what she calls #FearlessInclusion, which she defines as “The freedom to be yourself and the act of creating space for others to do the same.” Jina believes everyone should be free to be exactly who they are and not have to change themselves or pretend to be like others so we won’t be judged.

She told us there’s a documented correlation between diversity and performance. Diverse teams make better decisions; are more innovative, adaptable and creative; improve employee satisfaction; boost performance; and—most importantly for the profession’s current staffing crisis—improve recruiting and retention.

Here were some of her suggestions for how we can shift our mindset and look at everything differently to create diversity:

  • Don’t look at making “them” more comfortable with “us.” Make EVERYONE more comfortable with us. Diversity for one is diversity for all. That’s inclusion.
  • Think about how they stagger the starting lines in races so everyone—whether it’s the inside lane or the outside lane—runs the exact same distance and has an equal chance of winning the race. Adjust the starting point in your firm, so everyone has an equal chance of success, too. That’s equity.
  • When we see someone else doing something, we’re more inclined to do it. Jina issued a challenge to firms: Be leaders in the profession by starting a movement to create diversity. She used this video to show us how it starts with a leader, but it only takes two followers—the first to turn what others see as a “lone nut” into a leader, and the second to be the follower other followers follow. That’s belonging—and how a movement starts.

I could go on with this for another hour myself, but before I move on, I’ll leave you with this last nugget of wisdom from Jina:

You don’t have to do this alone. You have a great team; work with them to help change the conversation across the profession. Give them the opportunity to help you figure out how to bring diversity to your team. Let them ask questions and offer suggestions on how you can do things differently. Even just one small change helps invite #FearlessInclusion into your firm…and our profession.

AI: Hey, it’s the future!

Without a doubt, the most talked-about topic at Empower was AI. Which didn’t surprise me; here at Rootworks/Right Networks and out in the world in general, it’s a major subject of conversation. That’s why I made it part of my opening keynote, “Cutting through the chaos.” Because AI will increase the already rapid rate of change in the profession, it will also represent a major source of chaos as we adjust to it.

When I asked how many in the audience had tried ChatGPT, a little less than half raised their hands. That’s a good start. I’ve used ChatGPT, too. In fact, I had an article to write recently, and as an experiment, I asked it to write the article for me. It was…OK. Not good enough to use verbatim, but I used it as a baseline for rewriting the article in my own voice and with my own points added. I estimate it saved me about three hours of work.

AI was also the subject of one of the most popular and well-reviewed sessions at Empower. In “Navigating the AI revolution,” our own TJ Lewis and Dave Wachtendonk, who have been investigating the ways AI can help accounting firms, talked about the current state of AI and demonstrated how ChatGPT can be employed in firms now.

In their first poll, 49% of the attendees said they feel somewhat optimistic about the impact of artificial intelligence on society. That was a pleasant surprise; I thought more might be apprehensive.

Next, they showed a snippet of video from the launch webinar of GPT-4 about using AI for accounting functions like calculating a standard deduction and tax liability based on information the AI was given. It was successful, but what enlightened me more was the response to a poll after the video: “How has your opinion of AI within our profession changed? More excited, unchanged or more concerned?”

They spoke to three attendees, each of whom answered the poll differently:

  • More excited (50%): This attendee uses ChatGPT for her firm’s responses to tax authorities. They copy, paste, put in specifics—and they’re done. What used to take three to four hours now takes 30 minutes. That frees up their time to concentrate on advisory services and client engagement.
  • Unchanged (39%): This attendee said he’d already seen video of what AI can do, and some of what he’s seen is much more complicated than what we saw. He also said people may not have an appreciation for what this can do going forward, but whatever’s coming out next will be more advanced.
  • More concerned (11%): This attendee asked if we’d read any Isaac Asimov—and has any futuristic novel ever had a positive ending when it comes to AI? What are the top thinkers in the AI world doing to prevent the subjugation of the human race by our own AI creations?

That last answer got a good laugh but also brought up something I think we’ve all wondered about AI, even briefly. It’s as legitimate to feel concerned as it is to be excited about something that’s become a staple of science fiction.

But as Dave, who recently attended an MIT conference on AI, told the audience, AI taking over the world wasn’t really a topic they addressed much at that event. On the other hand, security, trust, your data, privacy, deepfakes—those were a focus. And given the proliferation of bad actors trying any way they can to get our information these days, I’m content with that focus for now.

Because, like the “more excited” attendee, I envision ChatGPT and similar AIs taking firms not to chaos but to a world where it helps accounting professionals with more routine or grueling tasks, like writing termination letters to clients, proposals, job descriptions, or financial and transaction reports. Tasks that free up you and your team to concentrate on more fulfilling and higher-level work—and equally important, on deepening your relationships with your clients.

TJ and Dave’s conclusion was this: Not everything will be perfect right now, but as AI learns and the developers tinker with it, it will get better. When we keep pushing the boundaries of AI, both we and it learn more. Right now, there’s a bridge between the user and the AI in that you have to take time to think through exactly what you want it to do, but that bridge will get shorter as we learn how to ask the right questions.

Your time, and your team’s time, is so valuable. That’s why all of us here at Rootworks and Right Networks are working hard to share what we learn with our members and customers, and partnering with you to learn what firms are looking for. And I think that’s one of the best things I learned this year at the Empower conference—that you’re right there with us as we move together into a future that holds so much potential for us all.

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