by George Nott

Pitcher Partners change their chat

Aug 03, 2016
Big DataBusiness IntelligenceCloud Computing

The way Pitcher Partners’ CIO Bradley Kay talks to the company’s execs has changed dramatically from two years ago.

To start with, conversations are now done over Skype, one element of a major digital transformation that’s led to, among other things, the demise of the deskphone. More important though is what’s being said.

“We’re now talking about client experience, we’re not talking about the next upgrade to Windows 10, or how do we improve the speed of the internet, or the system that may be causing someone some grief or whatever,” says Kay, “we’re talking about how do we improve the client experience. It’s a fundamentally different conversation.”

The discussions within the 15-strong IT team have changed too.

Pitcher Partners CIO Bradley Kay

“We’re getting our heads out of boxes and wires and talking about server names and bullshit and moving IT into a conversation about business strategy.”

Kay joined Pitcher Partners – a national association of independent and accountants servicing the middle market – in 2013, following a long career with KPMG. Around two years ago he came up with a plan to put IT in line with the firm’s business goals, and presented to the board of partners.

“There was less resistance than I thought,” says Kay. “I don’t think they had anyone tell them a story before and connect the dots. They were just getting random budget proposals for ‘upgrade server X’, rather than how is this investment going to make me money or save me money, and prepare me for the future.”

That plan involved moving the business’ infrastructure to a managed service provider to be run out of the cloud, an online CRM, client portal and tools to enable the workforce to be truly mobile and collaborate with ease. One of the steering group members summed up the plan to Kay in just a few words, telling him ‘this is simple stuff. Just make us faster make us more mobile’.

“While it’s simple, it’s not easy to achieve necessarily,” says Kay, “but it is a very good message to keep a hold of and keep forefront in the minds of our IT people. To think: ‘how is this contributing to make us faster and make us more mobile?’”

Small changes, big impact

The first step in Pitcher Partners’ transformation was to get it’s 100 plus partners and 1200 staff better connected. With a largely mobile workforce, the company’s auditors and accountants spend a lot of time on client sites, sometimes far more often than they are in an office.

Although an onsite team might be able to connect between themselves easily enough, getting files back to a partner in the main office for review was difficult. The system was ‘very chunky in the way it moved data’.

“We were reliant on people physically travelling to and from an office or central location to collaborate effectively,” explains Kay. “It is laughable now when you think about it. It was unfortunately a combination of a few things that had built up over time, it wasn’t deliberate, it wasn’t by design, but it ended up that way.”

The company changed its mobile provider to Optus which allowed it to ‘act freely on mobile networks without worrying about our data usage’. The team also utilised Microsoft Direct Access and changed the way people used the company’s main audit application.

“Those things were really renegotiating or reconfiguring or adjusting – they weren’t fundamental. But a combination of the three was powerful,” says Kay.

Staff quickly noticed the change.

“All we were doing was freeing them. So they were using all the same stuff but they didn’t have to think about using it differently, it just so happened they could use it anytime, anywhere now.”

Big changes, bigger impact

More fundamental was the next stage – moving all infrastructure to the cloud and having it run by a managed service provider.

“We didn’t want to manage the infrastructure anymore. It was becoming end of life and we had an opportunity to say ‘let’s do this thing differently’.”

“So we shifted everything, all of our infrastructure now runs outside of our building. That not only frees us up from thinking about servers and ‘2012 patch dot X’ into thinking more about value added services. The whole dream of outsourcing the stuff you don’t want to run anymore is freeing yourself up to think about and do other things.”

There was one small hiccup, which Kay jokes he is still scarred by – there was company-wide email outage. But the problem was quickly rectified after a swift explanation and apology from Kay to staff.

“The really cool thing that helped us was just being open and honest and fessing up and not bullshitting each other,” he says. “People like that.”

There’s also been the launch of an online CRM as well as Skype for Business and a Skype enabled conferencing room – “you go in, click a button to join a meeting and the room just starts up for you”.

Heads out of boxes and looking ahead

“We have a different culture and a different focus to what we did before,” says Kay. “It changes the way people think about what is possible again. We don’t get stuck on how bad the legacy stuff is but focus on what is possible for the future. There’s a belief in the possibilities now.”

His team have designed a client portal that is mobile responsive, requires no training to use, boasts a slick user experience and has an ‘innovative architecture’ connecting to a Sharefile backend on AWS.

They’re now looking towards further improving the way partners and staff interact with their clients, with more shared spaces and improved online engagement. There’s now freedom to consider bigger concepts, Kay says, with explorations into machine learning and automation.

“The dream is how you automate the compliance work – that’s the dream for an accountancy practice. Just as we’re trying to automate or offload the stuff we don’t want to do to focus on the value added stuff for our staff, they’re trying to do the same thing for clients.”

They are also considering Facebook for Work as they look at improving internal collaboration too.

“I’m still just the bloke that runs IT,” Kay jokes, “But there’s more trust there, more engagement.

“It’s amazing how business groups and IT groups can end up operating in silos, and assume each other are heading to the same place. But you just need to have a few of the right conversations.”