Finding hard facts behind soft words

Finding hard facts behind soft words

There are several new developments at this year's Softworld, but whathasn't changed is the scientific jargon and hype that only serves tobewilder the financial professional

The finance and accounting software industry makes its annual pilgrimage to the NEC in Birmingham next week for the Softworld in Accounting show.

The event has grown in stature over the last five years and is now the largest financial software event in the UK, mirroring the dramatic growth witnessed in the software market itself. But as the market has increased in size, so too have the problems. Information technology continues to baffle finance professionals just as much as it has always done. Events such as Softworld are an ideal opportunity for accountants to check out new developments and listen to the experts, but they should also give the industry a chance to get off its soapbox and start talking to users in plain English.

Research conducted earlier this year by Accountancy Age among more than 3,000 qualified accountants found widespread dissatisfaction with software developers. Many complained about being blinded with science by over-enthusiastic vendors and, with some exceptions, satisfaction levels with the financial or accounting systems they used in their organisations was often only average. Clearly the software industry has much to do if it is to recapture the hearts and minds of often cynical end-users who have heard all the promises but seen little in the way of business benefit.

As usual, next week’s event at the NEC promises a whole raft of new products and some exciting technologies which, once they are tried and tested, could transform large chunks of the average FD’s workload.

Internet

One of the most interesting trends to emerge over the last few months is the number of new, Internet-enabled accounting software products. Vendors may have a problem overcoming the jargon barrier here too – Web-enablement, a new area, already means lots of different things to different people.

But there’s no doubting the significance of some of the new products being launched at the moment, once they are implemented and tested. At the moment, however, it is a little too early to predict what impact they may eventually have. New Web-enabled products are hitting the market from the biggest players in the market. Oracle last week unveiled a new suite of business applications specially for use on the Internet. The new software is designed to give users direct access to information and let them carry out transactions with other online organisations. The Web applications also extend workflow to others in the business beyond senior management, and enable them to simplify transaction processes.

In basic terms it will give users the ability to analyse the day-before’s sales figures without having to browse through several different layers of management data.

Software 2000 is unveiling a Web-enabled product in the latest version of its accounts receivable product. The software incorporates the company’s Infinium Websight technology and is designed to give users the ability to extend their applications over the Internet or within a corporate intranet.

Software 2000 is also developing other Web-based products, including software that gives employees access to selected information from most other functions, including human resources and purchasing. The company said it had no intention of merely bolting a browser front-end to its applications.

Experts are still broadly divided as to the impact that the new Web-enabled applications will eventually have. A panel of industry specialists gathered last week to judge entries in the Accountancy Age 1996 accounting software awards. Some of the entries submitted made great play of their forthcoming Internet developments, but the consensus of opinion among the judges was that it was still rather too early to say exactly how these would revolutionise the business.

Not one of the industry gurus says that the Internet won’t make a real impact on the accountancy software market, but neither are they prepared to stand up and define to what extent it will make a change. Right now there is rather too much hype for the end-user’s good.

Sorting out the hype from the underlying market trends remains one of the problems facing any finance professional trying to decide on the best technological course of action for his or her organisation. One of the main attractions for visitors to Softworld is the jargon-free approach of many of the keynote presentations. In the past these have looked almost exclusively at the accounting software market itself – this year the speakers will include the usual accounting software experts but will also focus on other financial IT areas.

BACS service

Among others, these feature a focus on the benefits and latest developments in electronic payments via the BACS service, and a review of executive information systems. The BACS presentation will look at how companies can save on current payment costs, including purchase ledger, payroll payments and bought ledger collections. The EIS session, presented by Levy Gee finance and IT partner Johnathan Teller, looks at how EIS has changed from ‘executive’ to ‘enterprise’ information systems.

EIS development

Teller’s management briefing looks at how the systems have led to a greater culture of empowerment, giving staff further down the management hierarchy a greater level of access to information than in the past. Many businesses have avoided the EIS market because of the relatively high cost and the lack of flexibility. Teller’s session will prove invaluable to any organisation that has shied away from EIS investment for precisely this reason.

Further down the scale from corporate-level EIS systems, Tate Bramald Consultancy’s managing director Jyoti Bannerjee will present his view of major market trends in the accounting software industry.

Tate Bramald was involved in a 3,000-strong IT survey of Accountancy Age readers earlier this year and its research-base now includes the views of more than 13,000 separate users. Bannerjee’s briefing will give would-be buyers of software the low-down on who’s who and how they are rated by existing users.

So much for the keynote speakers. Most vendors will be running a series of seminars for interested delegates – as in the past, these range from the highly pertinent analyses to the basic product plugs that are really only of use to those well down the product selection road. That said, the seminar programme does contain some interesting topics, including: a look at moving the organisation’s accounts system from DOS to Windows; improving business processes with workflow and document image processing; and how to meet the demands of business change. If attendees strip out any copious product mentions by the vendor they should find the seminars invaluable.

New products take centre stage at Softworld, however. There are a good many this year, from product updates to radical rewrites and re-launches.

Kewill-Omicron is unveiling its fully scalable, 32-bit accounting software, Lawson Software will show the next generation of its client/server applications for the first time in Europe, IBM is launching its Concorde XAL integrated business management system, and Pinstripe is announcing a new 3-bit client/server accounts package, a full update of its long-in-the-tooth WinAccs package.

WinAccs was one of the first Windows products on the market, launched in 1988 under Windows 1.0. While gaining an initial advantage, other systems vendors took advantage of later Windows developments to steal a march with new GUI systems. The latest version of WinAccs will run on Windows 3.1 and above.

Time is unveiling a new version of its TRI-O object-oriented corporate accounting system, Walker International will launch a new consolidation software system designed for large organisations. The product is intended to automate the budgeting and planning cycle with central administration and control.

But while the focus at Softworld is predominantly on medium-sized and larger organisations, there is plenty for the smaller business. Sage will be exhibiting its Timslips time, expenses and billing software, and other low-end software suppliers will be there in large numbers.

Arguably the most useful feature of the show for delegates, however, is the usual free Softworld Report, which contains a huge amount of independent research into accounting software market trends and analysis.

This year’s report includes a review of the Softworld Summit, a round-table discussion of key corporate systems vendors, analysts and the English ICA. Much of the meeting’s findings echo what delegates will hear at the keynote presentations, but for once it is interesting to hear the vendors and the analysts speaking with one voice. It is not often that the industry drops the hype to discuss future trends with any degree of impartiality, but the Softworld Summit was one of them.

If delegates to next week’s show go away with a clear message, at least the industry may have begun to tackle one of the end-user’s biggest bugbears – the confused and often contradictory hype that bedevils the finance professional’s view of the market.

Softworld in Accounting & Management Executive Information Systems takes place at the NEC in Birmingham on 1-2 October. Entry is free, and tickets can be obtained on the door or in advance by calling the organisers, Interactive Exhibitions, on: 0181-541 5040.

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