Questionnaire used as part of long-range planning study may be helpful. (Management of an Accounting Practice)by Thibadoux, Greg M.
Editor's Note: The authors of this article developed a questionnaire as part of a long-range planning study for a CPA firm. (See Figure 1.) Sections of the questionnaire are presented, and may be useful to practitioners in taking stock as to where they presently are and as input in their planning of the future direction of their firms. The authors and the firm that they assisted thought it was important to get the input of both partners and all employees. All practitioners might not agree. It is a risk-taking approach designed to get everyone in the organization involved and committed to the success of the firm. We join the authors as they begin the process of developing the questionnaire.1 Developing the Questionnaire: initial Meeting With the Partners of the CPA Firm
In the initial developmental phase, the nature of the data to be collected as input to the long-range plan, and the method for data gathering, were reviewed with the partners. In this case, the partners made the decision to use a printed questionnaire to collect the information. The survey would be the most comprehensive, the least disruptive, and the most efficient data gathering tool. Additionally, the use of a questionnaire format would ensure the anonymity of the respondents.
During the initial meeting, five important environmental factors were identified. These included: 1) the firm and its mission; 2) firm strengths and weaknesses; 3) environmental challenges; 4) marketing; and 5) personal and firm goals. Questions were then developed regarding these areas.
The Firm and its Mission. Before strategies can be developed, every employee in the firm must agree on the mission or purpose of the organization. It is important for everyone to have the same goals. To assess this agreement, the employees were asked to state their perception of the firm's mission and to outline broad goals for the organization.
With this information, top management would be able to: 1) assess the overall level of agreement or lack thereof; 2) consider the need to develop a new or revised mission statement, and 3) develop short-term and long-term operational strategies.
Firm Strengths and Weaknesses. One of the most difficult planning tasks is that of evaluating a firm's internal competencies. An evaluation is necessary to identify the overall strengths of the firm both on a broad firm-wide basis and, on a more detailed level, by practice area and by personnel position. By realistically identifying these strengths and weaknesses, firms can decide which areas they may want to or need to capitalize on in the future. Once these areas have been identified, they can be prioritized for future improvement. The identification of a firm's strengths and weaknesses must be as accurate as possible.
Environmental Challenges. In looking to the future, an accounting firm must assess the competition, and attempt to understand future client needs, demographics and market trends. Once the necessary environmental data is identified, personnel within the firm should be assigned the responsibility of monitoring these variables on a permanent basis. The better performing firms are those that can recognize and respond to changes in the environment. Time should be set aside to track and assess these key areas since opportunities (and problems) can surface very quickly.
Marketing. Because a CPA firm is a service organization, marketing is a key operational variable, directly linked to success. The current marketing effort should be assessed and future efforts must be linked to the short-term and long-term operational strategies.
Personal and Firm Goals. The personal goals and long-range career objectives of personnel should be considered. The professional staff must believe they can enhance their own careers while they pursue the goals of the firm. Modification and Approval of Preliminary Questionnaire
After identifying the five types of information needed to develop the long-range plan, the questionnaire was drafted. The draft version was returned to the partners for their critiques. After the partners approved the questions, format, etc., it was pretested to ensure its usefulness. Pre-Testing
The outside planning team met confidentially with a representative from each level of management (partner, manager, and staff) and from each practice area (auditing, tax, and management advisory services). These employees were asked to complete the questionnaire and to comment on the clarity of each question for capturing the desired information. They also evaluated the appropriateness of each item for the professionals within their management level or practice area. Based on the responses of this pre-test group, the questionnaire was again modified and reviewed by the managing partner. Data Collection
Staff members were given cover letters describing the importance of their involvement in the planning process along with their copies of the questionnaire itself. The cover letter explained that the responses would be received and summarized by persons outside the firm and that the results could in no way be associated with specific employees. They were asked to complete the questionnaire within two weeks.
When distributing the questionnaire, timing is critical to successfully gathering the desired information. Completion of the questionnaire should not be attempted during peak periods in the tax and audit seasons. Even though the questionnaire should require approximately 30 minutes to complete, some employees will take additional time in dealing with open-ended questions. Adequate time should be given all employees to ensure the most thoughtful responses.
To ensure their anonymity, participants were requested to mail the completed survey to the authors for compilation and analysis. The data were summarized by area and by classification of respondent partners/managers/staff). Aggregate statistics were computed for the responses to the closed-ended questions. Open-ended answers were recorded and ranked according to the frequency of response. A copy of the survey results was presented to the partners. Developing the Long- Range Plan
The results of the survey served as the firm's strategic planning database. In some situations, management may want to obtain additional information as input into their long-range plan. This could include data about projected growth rates within the region they serve (these can include information about industry growth, population growth, service-sector growth), general economic forecasts, and analysis of competition. Also, the partners may be aware of such situations as potential mergers or buyouts of other firms, plans for expansion or contraction of staff personnel, plans for relocation of office facilities, and other proprietary information they may not want to address within the survey.
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