When CohnReznick built and unveiled a state-of-the-art new office space dedicated to innovation in June, it was on a firmer foundation than the concept’s sometimes “squishy” reputation.
The proof is in more than the impressive hardware, however, as the Top 15 Firm’s New York-based innovation lab is an extension of its long-standing vision.
CohnReznick CEO Frank Longobardi in the firm's innovation lab
“We are really thinking broadly about our people and our clients, and making innovation itself top-of-the-list and paramount — what differentiates CohnReznick,” said Keith Denham, managing principal and national director of CohnReznick Advisory. While Denham said the “lab itself is not the end-all, be-all” in this quest, it was “a big impetus for pushing it forward.”
The construction of the lab “was something that we took to the board in conjunction with the build-out of the new flagship New York office” last fall, Denham continued. “It was our clear belief that our office space couldn’t simply be a place to house our people, but from a standpoint of creating an environment where we were using the best technology and ideas and creating an environment for the biggest challenges and problems clients face — bring them into this environment to solve them in a fraction of the time.”
CohnReznick, No. 11 on Accounting Today’s 2016 Top 100 Firms list with $604 million in revenue, originally designated the lab as a problem-solving environment, which still holds true to its purpose. The firm set up an innovation committee and an application process to join, which drew a couple hundred resumes that the firm narrowed down to 20 committee members.
“What came out of that is we’ve become more collaborative across the organization, across service lines and geographies,” shared CohnReznick chief executive officer Frank Longobardi. “Innovation is used in a lot of different ways, but how we define innovation, at different levels, is that it’s sometimes incremental, which is okay. People think of innovation sometimes as an investment in the next greatest thing. We love to get breakthrough innovation coming out of this incremental innovation. If you can change something by one or two across several hundred people, it has a huge incremental effect.”
CohnReznick’s Keith Denham (left) and CEO Frank Longobardi utilize the innovation lab’s Bluescape collaborative workspace
While the innovation lab is housed in the firm’s Manhattan headquarters, it features technology for CohnReznick’s more than 2,700 employees in 30 offices to collaborate on across different cities and service lines.
At the center of this technology is visual collaborative workspace tool Bluescape, which unifies the firm’s solutions on a digital, “infinite” screen used for creation and collaboration. The workspace spans 12 high-definition, touch-enabled screens covering an entire wall of the lab, but contains more than 18 football-fields-worth of digital space. Bluescape functions as both a problem-solving and presentation tool that can be accessed and viewed remotely, with integrated Cisco video conferencing tools enhancing the experience for employees logging in remotely.
The collaborative solution is integral to the many services CohnReznick can provide clients in the lab, including strategic planning, mergers and acquisitions strategy, new products and services creation, financial and operational improvement analysis, software selection and technology architecture design, cybersecurity testing, and CFO advisory solutions. It’s also an essential training ground for staff.
“One of the challenges we have is internally educating all people, [who are not all] in New York to look at the lab,” explained Longobardi. “We educate them about the lab, capabilities, and the ways to use the lab. We’ve seen that people closest to the lab — I walk by it every day — have more of that. We have had innovation days for people across all cities, with ambassadors bringing back to the people, articulating how the lab was used.”
PIVOTS IN PURPOSE
Those methods of utilization are always changing, even in the six months since the lab opened its doors.
“I’m blown away by how many people from diverse parts of our firm wanted to figure out how they can use the lab for clients. Instead of [just] a 90 percent push from the center, we’ve had a 10 percent pull from the 2,700 people in our firm,” Denham said. “We’re pushing as hard as we intended, but there’s a pull from so many different parts of the firm; places you wouldn’t expect. Even as I take a look at some groups related to compliance, things you look at and say, these are not the cutting-edge services one stereotypically thinks about.”
Professionals from the more traditional accounting and assurance service lines, for example, are eager to book time in the lab.
Within four weeks of the launch, “We’ve had people from an accounting standpoint in the lab, delivering solutions and potential opportunities in internal audit, accounting and finance, budgeting and forecasting, thinking about how certain companies can adopt accounting standards in an optimal way related to revenue recognition and lease accounting,” Denham shared. “On the surface, those solutions and services are not the most applicable for digital or innovative solutions. But everything we do from a firm standpoint is to use tools and techniques for better and faster solutions.”
In one case study CohnReznick shared, the firm was able to reduce the problem-solving process for a pension fund client from nine weeks to two and a half weeks, using the lab’s process mapping and rapid prototyping.
CohnReznick CEO Frank Longobardi demonstrates some of Bluescape's capabilities
To date, the lab has hosted more than 50 clients — those with scheduled appointments that typically come in for a half-day meeting. Denham estimates that, based on the days CohnReznick has opened the lab to participants of local conferences, the number of teams visiting would reach in the hundreds. And this still doesn’t count those that have experienced the lab virtually, like attendees of the technology real estate conference RealComm in Silicon Valley in June, who were given a remote tour by Denham and real estate advisory services leader Tama Huang.
Whether presented to a large crowd or a single client, the innovation lab has an undeniable wow factor. “It gets clients’ and employees’ juices flowing,” Longobardi shared. “The setting is entirely different than at an office, with a desk, and someone’s sitting across from you. It’s experienced people asking hard questions to peel back the onion.”
The lab still has desks, but they swivel above ergonomically designed chairs and roll up to curved couches.
REINVENT AND ATTRACT
The lab’s seduction is just as powerful for prospective employees as it is for clients.
“Not everyone is in New York to see the lab, but even talking about the lab is a huge differentiator,” said Risa Lavine, CohnReznick’s principal and chief of staff. “Clients brag about it … it’s a powerful message of pride in the firm that people resonate with. It’s very cool to be a part of it. Even with lateral recruits, or partner candidates visiting the New York office, it really takes their breath away.”
Beyond cool gadgets and aesthetics, firm leaders believe that what the lab represents will really attract the best and brightest.
“Innovation in any firm is about culture — creating that culture and mindset within the people,” Longobardi said. “You do that, and you start to see innovation rise to the top and people really focused on how to make things better, more efficient, how to better serve clients. It’s a culture of listening and working with people.”
Younger professionals, especially, are eager for open communication with leadership, Longobardi continued. “You can’t block or shut down new ideas, but have to be able to listen and have a dialogue. Something as simple as a firm-wide suggestion box — we got a lot of really good suggestions, for incremental innovation to help us make slight changes in the firm’s positions … . We learn most from people by challenging them and asking them to come to the table.”
Or, in CohnReznick’s case, a couch or virtual meeting.
AT A GLANCE
Firm: CohnReznick Headquarters: New York City Chief executive officer: Frank Longobardi No. of partners/staff: 300/2,700+ Year founded: 1919 Services: Accounting and assurance; tax; advisory Industry specialties: Affordable housing; apparel and fashion; commercial real estate; construction; educational institutions; entertainment; financial services; government; government contracting; health care; hospitality; law firms; life sciences; manufacturing and distribution; marketing communication companies; medical; mortgage finance/consumer lending; not-for-profit; private equity/venture capital; real estate investment trusts; renewable energy; retail and consumer products; technology and new media
Danielle Lee, managing editor of Accounting Today, previously served as technology editor of Accounting Today and editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.