Big data means big business for Ottawa professional services firms

Micheal Burch
Welch managing partner Micheal Burch. File photo

As the economy slowly emerges from the COVID-19 lockdown, several Ottawa professional services firms are beefing up their big-data analytics toolkits for clients seeking every edge they can find to survive a steep and sudden downturn.

Over the past few years, firms such as MNP and Welch have been steadily building up their arsenal of AI technology as they transition from providing tax and accounting services to using data analytics software to help clients forecast sales and track spending. 

Earlier this week, MNP acquired Toronto-based T4G, which uses artificial intelligence to help clients in sectors such as retail and energy collect and analyze sales data, inventory levels and other key business indicators. Its customers include big names such as Enbridge, Lululemon and U.S. department store chain Macy’s.  

T4G has offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax, Moncton and Saint John and employs about 100 people. Its operations will be absorbed into MNP’s Ottawa-based digital solutions practice. 

Sean Murphy, who leads MNP’s digital solutions practice, says clients in both the private sector and government have an “insatiable need” for technology that helps them better understand who their customers are, what services they’re using and how products can be improved.

“That’s something that we’ve gotten much better at over the last five or six years,” he says. “This is just on that same track for us to start looking at what kinds of other solutions and what other kinds of capabilities exist out there that we need to be part of our quiver of arrows, so to speak.”

Computer-controlled drones

For example, he says T4G can use computer-controlled drones to conduct detailed inspections of wind turbines for its energy customers much more efficiently than humans ever could. Here in Ottawa, MNP already uses AI technology to help organizations such as the City of Ottawa manage programs and services, and he says T4G will give the firm new tools to dive even deeper into the data in a search for efficiencies.

“Our clients are hungry for these types of solutions,” he says.

At Ottawa-based professional services firm Welch LLP, managing partner Micheal Burch says most clients are currently focused on maintaining cash flow and navigating their way through the red tape required to tap into government aid programs. 

But once the worst of the storm abates and companies prepare to return to some semblance of normality, he expects many of them will start to look at new ways of mining corporate data in an effort to outsmart the competition. 

“We’re going to get through this, and then they’re going to say, ‘OK, now what’s available out there to (help me) sharpen my pencil and get an advantage?’” Burch says. “I think that’s when data analysis is going to be really important.”

Welch is currently partnering with local tech firm MindBridge AI to test software that uses machine learning technology to detect fraud and flag other questionable accounting practices in a company’s books.

Burch says he sees a day in the not-too-distant future when the technology will be used to do more than just weed out fraudsters. He predicts AI will help firms like Welch “slice and dice” data to show clients how their production costs compare with their competitors, for example.

The veteran accountant says more and more clients ​– particularly newer tech startups ​– are asking Welch to crunch numbers in ways that weren’t possible when he entered the industry. 

“They’re definitely starting to say, ‘Hey, if it’s out there and I can get my fingers on it and it’ll make me better, then let’s get that stuff,’” he says. “There’s lots of things we can do for our clients now that we couldn’t do five or 10 years ago. I think it’s all working together to make us far more productive and far more helpful to our clients.”

Murphy agrees, pointing out that technology like T4G’s can even help public health officials manage the reams of data that’s starting to flow in from contact-tracing apps and other tools used in the fight against COVID-19. He and Burch say it’s all part of the evolution of a business that’s in a “transition phase.”

Noting that automated accounting software has eliminated the need for a lot of labour-intensive, old-school ledger-keeping, Burch says professional services firms need to look for other ways to prove their worth to a new generation of clients. 

“We have more time on our hands, and we should spend that time being far better advisers,” he says.