I’ve just returned from ATSA and wanted to share six observations.
- Accountants are Interested in technology to support smarter ways of working
There was a big attendance in Melbourne, the biggest yet I believe, and that is a fair indication that accountants are interested in technology. I met people from firms of all sizes from the Big 4 to single owner firms. A common theme amongst attendees I spoke with was the desire to work smarter and boost efficiency through the application of technology. This makes complete sense. We don’t want technology for technology’s sake we want it to provide a return on our investment and actually solve a problem or do something genuinely useful. Accountants are faced with complexity on a daily basis and I believe they want technology to simplify and speed up how work can be completed for clients and their own business managed.
- There has never been more choice
Among the 65 exhibitors were some names I’d not seen before. The usual suspects were there, supplemented by many more so it was a great mix. Accountants could spend a lot of money on all manner of technology and the number of options available is huge. Huge to the point that I think it can by quite overwhelming for many accountants to make sense of it. In my role as a coach for accounting firms I get a lot of questions about technology and its application in firms because the reality is that most owners and managers don’t have enough time to understand the options available. ATSA tries to address this but in two days you get just a taste and then need to invest more time to dig into the necessary detail for informed decision making.
- The most common question asked of vendors was “will it link to my practice management system?”
I believe it is fair to say the practice management system remains at the heart of virtually all firms. As most of you know, the main vendors in this space, in alphabetical order, are MYOB, Reckon APS, Sage Handisoft, Xero and Walters Kluwer CCH. When implementing new software applications, the last thing a firm wants is to have duplication of data entry and maintenance. Sadly, however, it seems this is sometimes what is required. In many cases the vendors I just mentioned will say something like “we can meet all your needs in an integrated way so there’s no need to go elsewhere” and there is some truth in that. However, what I believe many firms are grappling with is that the big vendors don’t fully meet their needs, and therefore will often want to do a mix and match of “best of breed” applications. And this is where it can get messy. Fully functional APIs are not made available by all the PMS vendors and so connecting with them can be hard. For the benefit of the profession, I’d like to see all vendors coming to the party on this, a sentiment shared I believe by pretty much every accountant at ATSA.
- The vendors are passionate about their products
Without fail each vendor I spoke to had a team of people clearly passionate about their product and just dying to show me how fabulous it is. And I think it is easy to be caught up in that enthusiasm and not stop to ask questions like “how will my firm use this in our day to day work? Does it make us more efficient or simplify something that is currently complex?” This goes back to my point 1. I’d be disappointed if vendors were not passionate, but equally I’d be disappointed if firms blindly went into new applications without a clear why.
- Digital signing, portals and workflow management are hot topics
In 2016 I believe every firm should be using a portal and digital signatures. There was considerable discussion about these topics amongst attendees and vendors, with recognition that from both security and efficiency standpoints, these are good things. Workflow management was also much discussed. I talk to many firms who use Excel for both workflow management and workpapers because they have not yet been wowed by any vendor’s products. It seems that some progress is being made in this area and it is a quite “personal” thing. The point I would make is that this is an area where the “success not perfection” mantra could be well applied. There may not be the perfect system for your firm but ask yourself would it be better than what we do now? And if you are still emailing important documents to a client, get a portal and preferably one with digital signature capability if you don’t have that already.
- Risk Management is important
It was great to hear that most vendors store data in Australia and that prompted me to think about the importance of risk management for firms using cloud applications. Here are a few questions I believe you need to ask any prospective supplier:
- Who owns the data? (of course it should be you)
- Where is the data stored and what do you do to ensure it is secure and appropriately backed up?
- What mechanisms are there for my firm to back up the data to a location we control?
- Are you complying with Australian privacy requirements?
The question of back up is very important. Although the risk of a “default” maybe considered low the consequences may be catastrophic for your firm. By that I mean what happens if your cloud provider goes belly up and shuts down? If you can no longer access the data how does that affect your firm? It makes sense to me that you should have a way to regularly back up your data to a place you control. I accept that view that for the most part the data is safer on a day to day basis with the vendor than it is on your own server. However, it is not the day to day I am worried about. It is that (hopefully rare) occasion when things go horribly wrong.
Full credit to the ATSA team for putting together the event and to the hundreds of accountants who invested their time to educate themselves on technology. While you can get help from people like me, there is no substitute for a base level of understanding.