Teaching Tax Professionals to 'Speak IT': Practical steps for upgrading tax technology.

AuthorClarke, Rob
PositionInformation technology

Tax professionals are largely aware of the technologies available to supplement their departments' operations--technologies designed to directly support tax functions, such as tax engines, return preparation programs, and certificate management applications as well as general-purpose technologies that can be leveraged for tax, like data enrichment platforms, robotic process automation (RPA), and visualization and analytics tools.

In the authors' experience, most tax professionals can readily identify at least one process in their department that would be an ideal candidate for technology enhancement. Why then is it so difficult for technology initiatives to gain a foothold in tax departments? In many cases, the reason is that the process of bringing a new tax technology to production is an exercise in information technology engineering. And many tax departments may not have tax technology fluency at the level appropriate to have meaningful conversations with IT departments and vendors.

This article examines the process of implementing or upgrading a tax technology solution through an IT lens by using the "phase-gate" approach. The phase-gate approach, a project management model commonly used for IT projects, includes the phases of ideation, scoping, building a business case, development, testing, and production and postproduction assessment. This article covers the critical tasks a tax department should complete during each phase in order to select and implement a technology solution that delivers the expected benefits on time and on budget, which should help lay the groundwork for subsequent technology enhancements and overall departmental efficiency and improvement.

Although other technology implementation methods exist, this linear approach may demonstrate more clearly the process and considerations in the implementation life cycle. It is important to note that other methodologies, such as an "agile" approach, can be incorporated into certain phases to allow for some flexibility throughout the course of tax technology projects as evolving dynamics arise, because business needs, the economic environment, and certain resources may change after inception.

Phase 0: Ideation and Groundwork

The phase-gate approach is a front-loaded project management model, making early planning and ideation necessary for success in later phases. In ideation, the tax team candidly and transparently discusses challenges and other issues the tax department faces that may warrant technology upgrades. The organization must be confident that its brainstorming process is comprehensive before it can begin to scope the project.


The capabilities, accessibility, and costs of technology change constantly; therefore, even sophisticated tax departments are likely to have certain technology blind spots. Organizations that move forward with a technology implementation without first uncovering these blind spots risk implementing a suboptimal solution or identifying a better-suited solution only after advancing down the implementation path, requiring the team to double back unnecessarily.

The best way to shine a light on technological blind spots is not only by getting as many internal stakeholders involved early for fact-finding and needs assessment, but also by talking with outsiders. Industry peers are a potential resource to gauge what other tax departments are doing, but competitors aren't always open to sharing, and organizations should avoid selecting any technology just to keep up with the Joneses. Even similarly situated organizations have different goals, priorities, and challenges.

Holding whiteboarding sessions with tax and technology advisors is an ideal way to get a 360-degree view of the current tax technology landscape and to learn what works for organizations across different industries and geographies. Leadership should signal its support for transparent feedback throughout the whiteboarding process by ensuring that all team members can participate and by providing breakout discussions to ensure that all perspectives are shared. A perspective of this breadth and depth will ensure that the ideation process has been comprehensive, laying a solid foundation for decisions to come.


As the tax department devotes time to exploring new technology, its daily responsibilities remain, creating inevitable time constraints on stakeholders. To get the most out of time set aside for whiteboarding, as well as time spent on implementation, the organization must be deliberate in selecting an advisor with which to partner. Technology qualifications are an obvious consideration in choosing an advisor, but the advisory team should also have tax technical knowledge and process improvement experience. Additionally, the organization should learn whether its whiteboarding advisors would be the same team to deliver the implementation. The teams don't have to be identical to deliver a successful project, but the organization should vet the actual engagement resources to make sure the implementation team understands the organization's objectives, is aligned with organization personnel, and is prepared to partner with the user team as owners of the results.


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