Innovation in a Change-Resistant Industry

By Bob Jamison, Chief Innovation Officer for Elliott Davis LLC

With technology and other external forces reshaping the market, professional financial services firms are rethinking their approach to business.

The professional financial services industry — and accounting in particular — is in a perpetual state of change. Evolutions in consumer behavior, advances in technology and competition in myriad forms are threating the health of firms that fail to adapt. But for the industry leaders willing and able to evolve along with their clients’ needs, the potential for growth is unlimited.

Perhaps the biggest disruption impacting the marketplace is technology, specifically the cost and sophistication of these new tools. While these advances present challenges as companies scramble to adopt and adjust, they also create opportunities for improvement. For instance, the ability to capture and report data in ways never before possible allows professional financial services providers to more quickly and accurately identify new patterns or trends. With this information, they can offer clients more consultative and predictive solutions.

Technology also affects the speed with which firms can deliver products and services. As organizations become cloud-based, they deploy products in weeks or months rather than years. Schedules accelerate, and the time required to execute a new idea decreases dramatically.

Another key disruptive force is the pressure coming from companies outside the industry that are now offering lower-end tax preparation. The increasingly intuitive nature of off-the-shelf tax software is also siphoning off a line of work that has been a mainstay of accounting practices. 

Taken as a whole, these trends deliver a simple message: Past solutions no longer guarantee future success. Innovative thinking must drive every decision, every day.

Forward-leaning firms embrace this mindset and use it to guide their approach to every aspect of their businesses. Some, like Elliott Davis, have committed so completely to this ideal that they’ve appointed a Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) whose sole focus is to design and foster an innovation-friendly environment throughout the organization. These individuals are tasked with establishing company-wide best practices, developing new capabilities, identifying new market spaces and opportunities and facilitating the exchange of ideas that fuel innovation.

This commitment to innovation is one of the many reasons Elliott Davis is at home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, recently named by Forbes as one of America’s most startup friendly cities. Our office of 110 employees sits just down the street from the City’s Innovation District, a designated quarter-mile walking radius focused on creative problem-solving and building connections. Anchoring this area is the Edney Innovation Center, a 10-story building filled with startups, shared workspace and community meeting rooms, bringing hundreds of people and ideas together daily. We’re no startup, but we embrace the same innovation, agility and consumer focus shared by our neighbors.

Take the Electric Power Board. In 2009, Chattanooga’s own Electric Power Board beat Google and every other internet provider in the race to offer fiber optics internet to an entire city. Even now, Chattanooga is home to the most affordable and fastest internet service in the United States, with speeds from 300 Mbps to 10 Gig. In addition to earning Chattanooga the title of Gig City, EPB also focuses on providing exceptional customer service and transparent billing in an industry where both tend to be lacking.

Access America Transport, a little startup in Chattanooga, revolutionized shipping and logistics when it took on organizing multi-modal transportation. Access America went on to be acquired by Coyote Logistics and later, UPS. Access America connected drivers who had empty trucks with those in need of shipping services and paired the two in a mutually beneficial agreement.

When you dig into these companies at the local level, they have two things in common. Yes, they use technology effectively. But they take it a step further. Each of these companies understands that technology is only a tool. Their customers remained the center of their focus as they sought new ways to solve problems and provide value.

So what does innovation look like in the context of professional financial services? The answer will vary from company to company, but a good place to start would be exploring both digital innovation and process innovation, just like Chattanooga’s own success stories.

Every process, every technology, every engagement – everything must be reimagined as firms seeks to replace transactional services with transformational solutions.

This is true of the Elliott Davis team as we offer an even deeper portfolio of services in the areas of tax, audit and assurance. Not only are we dedicated to using technology and data to offer clients the most accurate and time-saving solutions, we know that the personal factor must not be forgotten.

The hunt for innovation motivates Elliott Davis employees every day. We continually ask how we can serve our clients on their journeys. Our own innovation story helps us better understand how to support our customers as they navigate the disruptions in their respective industries.