Headstart: E-business – Beware the web portal revolution.

Secrecy and confidentiality have been at the heart of the accountancy profession for centuries. Information has been closely guarded. Many see the finance director as the number two in an organisation after the chief executive. Their inner knowledge has been key to supporting this position.

The e-business revolution is changing this scenario. A new technology – web portals – is threatening the power base of the accountant.

A web browser, if used with a data warehouse, can open up information directly to employees and allow them to ‘pull’ information when they require it in the format they want, rather than relying on the accountant to produce it for them.

There will be some technical work required to set up the extract routines from the business systems into the data warehouse. However, once done, this process can be automated with little ongoing support from the IT function.

Suddenly users are being empowered.

This concept can be extended to customers/suppliers and external partners.

Why not allow your suppliers to see the status of their account with you over a browser rather than having to ring you up? Why not let your clients have direct access to the information that you hold on them? This improves the service to your partners and saves you time and money. Web portals can be tailored for each customer/contact to give them the specific information they are interested in.

This encourages new and different ways of working with your customers.

A high-profile example is the airline industry where companies have opened up their reservation data direct to customers and allowed them to buy tickets. This has cut out the travel agent, improved the service to the customer and reduced costs.

There is a challenge to this concept, however, as many accountants are wary of opening up their information to anyone – internal or external.

There are a myriad of reasons given for this, including the threat of security breaches and the perceived need for the accountant to check and interpret information for the users.

I suspect there is a hidden agenda. Information is power. If you let people outside finance have their own access to financial information, this power goes from the accounting team. The IT industry is starting to push the concept of web portals very hard. Chief executives are asking for access to information. The forward-thinking accountant must respond to this. If they don’t, users/IT will break down the accounting department walls brick by brick and the accountant may well fall victim to this break-in. There will still be a role for the accountant – including auditing and managing the security. Again, e-business is proving to be a huge agent for change. Accountants ignore this at their peril.

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