By David Meister
By the end of the year, the AICPA expects to announce more details on the launch of its much-anticipated online business-to-business (B2B) exchange, currently referred to by the working name of cpa2biz.com. The AICPA expects to complete all key management hires and have all strategic partner agreements in place by January 2001.
According to analysts at the Yankee Group, by the year 2004 e-commerce could account for as much as $3 trillion in transactions. Several questions arise as web portals lead the business world online and the accounting profession becomes more e-commerce savvy:
What is a portal and how does it work?
A portal is like a giant marketplace where participants can both access and deliver three things:
The portal structure allows customers to control the mix of professional services they receive and integrates people, processes, and technology as needed.
Examples of Internet portals for the general consumer include America Online, Yahoo!, Infoseek, and Amazon.com. These and other well-known consumer sites and online retailers are attracting larger audiences and revenue as they evolve into exchanges filled with wide-ranging content: job and housing listings, dating services, phone directories, and links to major retailers.
How can e-commerce gain business and maximize client profitability while staying within legal and professional guidelines?
In the electronics industry, engineers and purchasers alike benefit from the marriage of content and commerce in portals that consolidate editorial content, interest fulfillment, online diagnostic solutions, and e-commerce transactions in a seamless service that links to a comprehensive inventory.
For accountants, e-commerce solutions such as portals can expand client thinking about the services offered by traditional CPA firms. As envisioned, cpa2biz.com will be a one-stop shopping website: an amalgamation of assets from AICPA and non-AICPA vendors that meet the profession’s practice standards. The AICPA’s goals for cpa2biz.com are to help practitioners work better with businesses that are increasingly global in scope and to “e-enable” those businesses for all their activities, especially e-commerce transaction security.
“As a profession, clients give accountants high marks for integrity as a ‘most trusted advisor’ but no credit for services beyond tax and audit,” said Brett Prager, CEO of Critical Management, which is developing the AICPA portal. “The portal is one of many answers to the issue of how the accounting profession can benefit from e-commerce and access to a wide range of vendors and services.”
The portal will benefit smaller practitioners in particular, making it possible for them to leverage their growing expertise in areas such as human resources, employee benefits, and consulting. For national and global businesses, cpa2biz.com is a compelling means by which information can be kept timely and both additional labor and the margin of error can be reduced. For example, the portal would allow a client to key its payroll data into a system electronically linked to its local CPA practitioner.
The AICPA’s plans to aggressively market the portal raise questions that may be more fully answered once it is unveiled.
Can the privacy standards of WebTrust be maintained for a greater number of practitioners and non-CPA vendors?
The current WebTrust family of services assures consumers that an online business keeps its promises. WebTrust certainly enables CPAs to supplement or replace revenue from audit and tax work and can differentiate firms aiming to attract and retain talented staff with e-commerce knowledge. How closely the WebTrust standard can be maintained for vendors and strategic partners in a portal agreement remains to be seen.
Will the AICPA’s objectivity be hampered and its nonprofit image be tarnished when its for-profit portal recommends vendors and services and offers its participants equity participation?
The AICPA will offer equity participation and referral fees of up to $1,000 to the practitioners providing WebTrust and other services offered within the portal. If the work fails to meet professional standards, the AICPA’s credibility could come into question.
In the view of Robert Gold, managing partner of Bennett Gold Chartered Accountants, Toronto, Ontario, the AICPA’s initiatives represent a forthright attempt to communicate the realities of e-commerce to an uncertain membership. Nevertheless, Gold questions whether the AICPA is risking its traditional roles of leadership and education by crossing the line to become an actual player in e-commerce.
How will cpa2biz.com differ from existing portals?
This is a major question in many minds. Although encouraged by the AICPA’s goals and high standards, Peter Frank, of Cornick, Garber and Sandler LLC, questions whether cpa2biz.com will be able to create its own niche.
“It’s legitimate to wonder if the new portal will be different from AccountingWEB and Pro2Net,” Frank said. He thinks that cpa2biz.com must distinguish itself from similar competitors through its form. “The navigation will be critical,” Gold said. “It really has to be elegant to use.”
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