How to buy small business software: getting it right

Software for a smaller practice falls into two main types ­ specialist
practice software and general applications. The specialist applications help run
the firm’s own systems and deal with specific service areas such as bookkeeping
and accounts production, tax, bureau payroll and company secretarial work.

Practices will also need to use the ‘normal’ office applications that most
other businesses use to cover word processing, email and personal information
management, web browsing and of course spreadsheet modelling.

Whether considering the specialist or the general software, many of the
principles are the same. One of the most important areas to consider is training
and implementation. Most organisations would be better off buying the wrong
software and implementing it properly and providing the right training than they
would be by choosing the best software but failing to make sure their staff know
how to use it. Choosing the right software with correct implementation and
training is the ideal approach. Specialist applications are going to need
continuing support and updating ­ particularly in a profession that is so much
at the mercy of external regulations. It’s crucial to have confidence in the
ability of the supplier to support and maintain its application adequately.

One element of the evaluation that should never be ignored is contacting
other users of the software, preferably users of a similar type to your own firm
and who are likely to use the software in a similar way.
There are some specific issues related to accountant’s specialist applications.
Deadlines for online filing both of tax and accounting information are rapidly

The way the system will cope with developments in online filing and XBRL will
be crucial. In addition, a good document and knowledge management system could
have a substantial and direct effect on the quality of client service.

Those buying software for practice have always faced the choice of buying an
integrated system from a single supplier or going for the ‘best of breed’
approach, which is likely to involve products from several suppliers. Hopefully,
the xAPL standard for sharing data between products from different suppliers may
eventually allow practices to choose what they consider the best individual
packages without sacrificing the benefits of integration.


  • Several software suppliers have ‘clubs’ aimed at practices that provide
    beneficial access to software and support in return for promotion of products to
    the accountants’ clients. See Microsoft, Sage and Iris for examples.
  • For more on IT purchasing go to
  • The ICAEW’s accredited product scheme includes several categories of
    software specific to accountancy practice ( The ICAEW IT faculty
    conducts a periodic survey into the usage of software in accountancy practices
    which includes a recommendation rating based on the responses of hundreds of
    accountants in practice.

John Court is head of the ICEAW’s IT Faculty and
Simon Hurst, vice chairman. The xAPL standard is an XML based
standard for the interchange of client information agreed between the major
suppliers of practice software in the UK with the participation of the ICAEW’s
IT Faculty.

1. Software choice has recently become a lot more
complicated, because the growing importance of online solutions and software as
a service should not be under-estimated. For a smaller practice, an online
solution could be ideal, replacing the need for extensive initial and ongoing
investment in complicated IT infrastructure and maintenance with the ability to
access the required systems from anywhere with any computer capable of running a
web browser. The other main benefit of this approach is the ability to easily
share data with other members of the organisation, or clients.

2. There are drawbacks – it does mean entrusting the firm’s
own data and that of its clients to the internet – although there is probably a
good argument that it might be safer there than on an internal server connected
to the internet. The firm also becomes dependent on the reliability and speed of
the available internet connection. For now, the biggest drawback is probably the
lack of purpose-written online solutions for the specialist applications.

3. As well as online solutions there are open source options
– though the desirability of compatibility with clients’ systems and with
specialist software packages, as well as the familiarity of existing and future
employees with Microsoft Office make it difficult not to go with the Microsoft
option. Incidentally, any small practice that is intending to use Microsoft
should investigate the Microsoft Action Pack although eligibility requirements
may not be entirely straightforward. One of the most popular open source options
is, which is broadly used as an alternative to Microsoft Office.

Schemes / forums / programmes

It may be the case that the ‘traditional’ approach to software selection,
involving detailed analysis of requirements and the creation of an extensive
invitation to tender, is now little-used – particularly in smaller
organisations. But some of the reasons for this approach are still every bit as
relevant. Attending product demonstrations without a clear idea of what you need
a system to do for your particular organisation can increase the danger of being
seduced by clever product features to the detriment of addressing the basics

Accordingly, it’s a good idea to put together a shopping list of requirements
against which each product can be evaluated. While it’s sensible to take little
for granted, current software products are likely to be able to cope well with
standard requirements, so the shopping list should concentrate on particularly
important areas, or areas where the business considers its requirements to be in
some way different to those of other companies.

When compiling the list of requirements, it’s sensible to consult widely. A
system imposed on users who feel they’ve had no say in its choice is far less
likely to be a success than one where everyone feels committed to making it

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