It would be fair to assume that there are accountants in either camp, but what is certain is that by some distance, the majority sit in the pro-technology camp, with the profession becoming increasingly willing to engage in IT with every new year’s graduates entering the profession.
But external factors such as the slump in the economy, with companies increasingly controlling and scrutinising costs and business performance, may temporarily hamper the progress the profession makes in this regard. However, any setbacks are temporary and the momentum is definitely in favour of a happy marriage between the profession and technology.
These findings are cemented in the fourth annual Sage/Accountancy Age IT Skills Survey, which asked for the views of approximately 6,000 accountants in March this year.
From this sample size, the results are based on the response of 800 accountants, 65% of whom are not members of the Sage Accountants Club.
Building a website
When asked if their company plans to build a website, a massive 75% say they do not, compared to 65% last year, suggesting that either more companies now actually have a web presence, or that they are holding back on spending in this area as they concentrate on their core business activities.
However, when asked what the primary purpose for having a website was, 73% say it is to promote their practice, suggesting the web is being used as an additional tool accountants use to market themselves – seemingly even more the case, while only 8% say their website is used to service clients.
More interestingly, the level of demand from clients to provide services electronically is still very low, with only 3% saying they have a strong demand, and 18% saying they have a medium demand.
Both figures are down on last year, while accountants stating there is no demand has jumped from 9% to 24% over the past 12 months, possibly due to a number of high profile internet-related disasters and the bursting of the dotcom bubble.
Jerry Luckett, general manager of Sage’s accountants division, says: ‘As we started to see last year, accountants are beginning to take a much more pragmatic approach towards e-business and using the internet to run their practices more efficiently.
Internet as a marketing tool
‘They continue to use the internet mainly as a marketing tool but are also confident that many of their services can be delivered online in the near future. Again, demand from clients will influence their decisions to deliver services electronically rather than an adoption of new technology for the sake of it.’
The primary use of the internet during working hours for accountants continues to be for obtaining industry information.
Some 58% (down slightly from 61% last year) use the tool as a means to find such information. Accountants are also becoming more conscientious or less honest, with only 34% admitting they log onto the web for personal use during work, with that figure reaching 50% last year. The biggest increase in web use appeared to be marketing and file/data transfer, with both showing a 5% increase.
A further sign of the e-business bubble bursting came as just 8% of accountants definitely agreed with the statement that IT offers new and lucrative revenue streams, down from 17% last year. A further 32% said they agreed with that statement, down 17% on last year. The largest number, 41% were not persuaded one way or the other.
No big investment in IT
In terms of forward-thinking, the vast majority of respondents are not looking to spend vast amounts of cash on IT, with 34% saying they will spend less than £1,000, and a further 39% say they will spend between £1,000 and £4,999.
But these figures must be put in context. Some 81% have an annual turnover of £499,000 or less, and so the amount of IT spend is unlikely to be massive.
Luckett adds: ‘As with other industry sectors, accountants are feeling the strain of an uncertain economy, which means they are more cautious when investing in IT.
‘Now, more than ever, their IT buying decisions will be driven by a need for real business benefits such as cost reduction, increased efficiency and improved customer service.’
Offering IT services
In terms of offering IT advice to clients, some 80% say it is either important or very important to do so, with the biggest area of growth being software selection, which has shot up 20% on last year to 76% and payroll, which has risen from 78% to 95%.
A further 76% recommend accounting software to their clients, a figure roughly unmoved since the survey was first undertaken in 1998.
The number of accountants who believe they are expected to offer a full IT/computing consultancy service has remained level since the survey began, with just over half saying they agreed with that statement.
But despite embracing technology, what is clear is that accountants are firmly in the camp that believes they can offer a better service by following the traditional route. Some 96% communicate with their clients over the telephone, 91% by letter, 83% face to face and 66% by fax, with a further 65% by email.
By embracing technology, there is evidence accountants are saving time and being freed up to spend more personal time servicing their clients.
‘The research shows that the majority of accountants prefer the personal touch when it comes to communicating with clients and there is no doubt that their willingness to embrace new technology to help them run their practices has enabled them to spend more time out of the office,’ adds Luckett.
Traditional methods for gleaming information on IT information remain fairly traditional. At the risk of banging our own drum, 32% read Accountancy Age for their information, up from 21% last year.
Some 20% gain their industry and technology information from newspapers, and 33% from colleagues. Surprisingly, the number who look to the internet fell from 53% to 42%.
Accountants focused on IT
However, Luckett, concludes: ‘The research findings demonstrate that accountants remain as focused as ever on intelligent use of IT to help them continue to deliver client needs and excellent customer service.
‘They are investing in IT only if they believe it is going to help them provide a value-added service to clients and to help them to differentiate themselves from the competition.’ Graphs
|Confidence in Inland Revenue delivering electronic services
Could do better: Several high-profile Inland Revenue online disasters are likely to have contributed to the extremely low levels of confidence in the agency’s ability to deliver services online. A staggeringly low 2% are very confident that the government can deliver what it has promised
|Likelihood of taking advantage of electronically delivered services from the Inland Revenue
Tell me I’m wrong: The overwhelming majority of accountants are in need of persuading that taking advantage of the Revenue’s online services is a good idea. Only 1% of accountants with personal clients and 4% of corporate clients are very likely to take advantage of e-services.
|Level of demand from clients for you to deliver services electronically
Supply and demand: The number of accountants who are experiencing strong demand to deliver services electronically is exceptionally low at just 2%. Until these levels change, it is unlikely accountants will stampede towards providing such services.
|What type of IT advice is offered?
If you want my advice: Accounting and payroll advice continue to be the leading areas required in terms of IT advice. However, tax advice has rocketed from 29% to 89%. E-business advice demand has dropped, but website creation advice has climbed steadily.
|% of revenue generated by providing IT advice
Show me the money: Despite their belief that offering IT advice is very important, some 87% said that they actually generate less than 10% of their revenue from this advice. A further 10% said they earned 10-24%.
|How valuable is your website to your practice?
Caught in a web: From those accountancy firms which have installed a web presence, only a handful are suggesting it is extremely useful to their business. The majority (80%) report the web as of limited value or only fairly valuable to their firm. But most accountants are using the web as an additional marketing too.
|How do you keep in touch when working out of the office?
It’s good to talk: Despite the emergence of the laptop, pager and handheld computers available on the market, they appear to be taking time to filter through to the end-user. Most accountants (78%) prefer to keep in touch with the office by mobile phone when they are on their travels
|How important is it to offer IT advice to your clients
IT’s got to be perfect: Accountants remain unshaken in their belief that offering IT advice is important or very important. This year the levels fell slightly, but 69% still find this to be the case
|Amount of time spent working out of office in an average week
Out of office hours: Technology can be extremely useful to accountants while they are away from the office meeting clients. Almost a quarter report being out of the office two to three days a week. This amount of time away is made possible and simpler with the take-up of technology.