IT Focus - The price of progress
How are the latest IT gadgets and toys affecting accountants? John Stokdyk looks at what's available.
How are the latest IT gadgets and toys affecting accountants? John Stokdyk looks at what's available.
Accountancy is a classic information industry. It involves data collection, manipulating figures, and producing reports. It is no coincidence that the profession has been the testing ground for so many of today’s labour-saving technological innovations.
Desktop and laptop PCs running bookkeeping, accounts preparation and auditing software are now the norm for the majority of financial professionals.
On this page, ancillary programs and gizmos ranging from electronic office diaries to palmtops will be put under the microscope. On page 26 you will find a discussion of printers and multifunctional devices that will apparently make Britain’s accountants even more productive.
But do all these gadgets justify the cost, or has technology reached the point of diminishing returns?
In all matters technological, it is difficult to escape the ever-widening reach of Microsoft. Having gained control with Windows of more than 90% of the world’s computer desktops, Bill Gates’ software steamroller is providing more and more of the applications used in finance departments and professional offices.
Microsoft Office 97, which is bundled with many new PCs, comes with a bewildering array of tools. The Excel spreadsheet is the number-crunching workhorse for most accountants, and most will be familiar with Word and PowerPoint, the standard tools for word processing and presentations.
Outlook is Microsoft’s attempt to annexe the personal productivity sector.
The application acts as the user’s electronic mail in-tray, but can also be linked to a daily diary (with the ability to accept and decline appointment requests from other users on the network), a contacts database, a daily ‘task list’ and journal. With a bit of training and imagination, you could probably use Outlook to construct an automated practice management environment.
But, as always, the experts are divided on the products that Microsoft is offering.
Simon Hurst, who advises practising accountants on the use of technology through his Horsham-based consultancy, The Knowledge Base, concentrates on Microsoft applications because of the base they provide to integrate different functions.
Within the Office suite, it is a simple matter to insert a spreadsheet chart into a Word document and even arrange for the embedded data to be updated should the parameters change. External programming interfaces like ODBC, explains Hurst, make it possible to link other programs into the Microsoft environment. ‘You can take the practice management database, pull it up in Word and keep one central list of contacts rather than every secretary having a card index on their desk.’
Nick Boulter, a partner with Sevenoaks-based firm Harding & Boulter is less enamoured with Microsoft Outlook. ‘Grossly overcomplicated,’ he says.
‘Unless you have an IT department that can set it up and establish standards, no one uses it.’
Accountancy software reseller John Tate, managing director of London-based Tate Bramald, also thinks Microsoft wins business more on the basis of the strength of its brand name than the benefits of its technology.
‘We’ve had enormous difficulty with Outlook and Exchange and regard them as being unstable,’ he says.
What Microsoft has been doing with Outlook is to match the functions of Lotus Notes, the ‘groupware’ environment used within several Big Five firms.
‘From a design point of view, Notes is absolutely leaps and bounds ahead of Outlook. Because it has the ability to replicate data, people can use it to work collaboratively,’ says Tate.
The quibbles raised by Tate and Boulter are of some importance. Somewhere out there, somebody has probably created a program that will let you carry out any task you might be able to conceive.
But it is human beings who will really stop technology from being used effectively.
Says Tate: ‘If they are well implemented, productivity tools can make offices a lot more efficient. But you need to have the management skills to make the change happen.’
In accountancy practices, he explains, partners tend to have strong opinions about their working methods and it can be difficult to get all the partners to use the same software in the same way.
‘If half the partners use the electronic diary and half don’t, it isn’t much help,’ Tate says.
Hurst thinks many IT buyers go about the process the wrong way by allocating their budgets to hardware and software first, without allowing for the training employees will need to use it. ‘The first thing to do is work out what levels of IT skill you have and then how much you need to spend on training,’ he explains
With so many tools and toys on offer, office automation should be able to cater for different skill levels and preferences. Computers are still predominantly keyboard-driven and are hamstrung by the 100-year-old Qwerty layout that was specifically designed to slow down typing speeds.
The advent of voice-recognition software could remove the stigma for people who still regard keyboards with fear and loathing.
IBM’s ViaVoice program has set the pace for talking to desktop machines, but accountants on the move might be attracted by Dragon’s NaturallySpeaking Mobile product. Costing around £199, it is a handheld device that can take up to 40 minutes’ dictation and transcribe it into a word-processor file.
Getting different devices to talk to each other has also been the bane of technology users, but the arrival of a new connection standard – the universal serial bus (USB) – could eliminate the hassles that made linking a computer to peripheral devices such a nightmare in the past.
‘Accountants as a breed are probably not that attuned to ripping backs off computers,’ says Hurst.
‘But rather than buying a fancy docking station, you get a USB hub for around £80 that will connect your portable to a desktop. And all your other peripherals can connect to the hub.’
The internet and email have probably done the most to awaken the profession’s interest in technology.
But while Tate Bramald may have cut its paper usage by approximately 95% in the past five years by using portable computers and electronic mail, the managing director still complains that technology is not reliable enough. ‘We can’t go for a month feeling entirely comfortable. Every so often some system will go down. It can be extremely frustrating and quite difficult to dig your way out,’ says Tate.
The advantage of paper and pencils, he adds, is: ‘You don’t need contingency plans and don’t have downtime.’
CASE STUDY: HOW TODAY’S COMMUNICATIONS CENTRE IS GETTING EVER SMALLER
Sevenoaks-based Harding & Boulter is a two-partner firm that has made a point of pioneering the use of technology both within the firm and for its clients. Partner Nick Boulter says the firm first started using BT’s Prestel service for email around nine years ago.
The firm has gone through several technology generations and both partners now use Psion 5 palmtop computers.
The palmtop has its own operating system, EPOC, which has a Windows emulator that communicates with PCs via infra-red signals. ‘You put it within a couple of feet of the PC and the Psion pops up as a disk on the Windows desktop,’ he explains.
Other applications on the Series 5 include a basic word processor and spreadsheet, an email system and simple Web browser. ‘If I’m working with numbers, I tend to use the spreadsheet and if I’m working with text, the word processor,’ says Boulter. ‘I use the Psion for all manner of time recording, contact management and diary uses. Then when necessary, I transfer the information to a PC.’
Boulter finds combined systems like Outlook ‘infuriating’ for basic data entry. ‘With the Psion, you can just grab it and run. You can capture data almost as easily as writing characters on a piece of paper. Things have got to be pretty slick to beat it.’
Psion, a UK company, faces heavy competition from Microsoft’s Windows CE operating systems for handheld computers, but has gained important allies in mobile telephone manufacturers Nokia, Ericsson, Matsushita and Motorola.
‘Convergence’ is technology’s current buzzword. Through its Symbian alliance with the mobile manufacturers, Psion is working towards devices that will combine the functions of mobile phones, computers and Web browsers. Today’s hand-held computer could become tomorrow’s all-in-one mobile communications unit.
PRINTING AND DISTRIBUTION SYSTEMS – WHAT GOES IN MUST COME OUT
With all the exciting technological developments taking place, printing is probably one of the most commonly overlooked functions – but it is also the one which has the greatest impact on how your organisation is perceived by the outside world.
In the past year or so, the traditional office printer has been changing. Previously, users would either have a personal or ‘workgroup’ printer to which they sent their finished work.
If additional copies were required, the original document was probably photocopied. But anyone who has ever wrestled with the paper feed of a recalcitrant photocopier may have to pause to wonder why we need the beastly devices. Printer manufacturers have been thinking in much the same way and now they have enhanced their machines so that they can rival copiers in terms of speed, reliability and cost.
Hewlett Packard is probably the most recognised brand in the printing field, both for high-volume network devices such as the £2,500 8100N, which can output up to 30 black-and-white pages a minute, and personal printers such as the LaserJet and DeskJet ranges.
HP’s laser print engines set the standard for 600-dots-per-inch resolutions and were the first to include enhancement routines which gave them even higher apparent resolutions on the page. As well as technical advantages, the company puts a lot of effort into making its devices easy to install and configure, with its JetDirect installation program which can be accessed via a Web browser. A 16-pages-per-minute machine, the LaserJet 4050, with similar bells and whistles was launched in May with a recommended price of just under £1,000.
The advantage of HP machines over rivals, according to Harding & Boulter partner Nick Boulter is ‘they just seem to work. If you can’t find the exact printer driver for a new model, you can always revert back to an older one and it should work,’ he explains.
In a recent comparative test by VNU Labs, the £2,460 Canon LBP 2460 was graded highly for the print quality, but was slower than the Hewlett Packard 8100N and more difficult to configure. These two manufacturers were the most advanced in terms of supporting the Windows NT operating system.
Kyocera’s FS-7000 won plaudits for archiving printing costs of around half a penny per page, while the QMS 2060, costing roughly £1,500, would make a good choice for small departments.
A new innovation is taking hold in smaller offices and practices – the multifunctional device. Rather than having separate fax machines, scanners, printers and photocopiers, with the attendant spaghetti-work of cables and plugs, they can all be bundled into one unit, the office equivalent of a stereo mini-system.
Leading office manufacturers such as Xerox, Brother, Sharp and Hewlett Packard have multifunction products in the £450-£700 price range, either with inkjet printing heads, which can handle colour work, or laser-driven systems which print faster, but only in black.
Like their audio cousins, MFDs are handicapped by the weakest link. What they gain in convenience is offset by losses in output speeds – the four or five pages per minute offered by some devices will not be fast enough to cope with the demands of even a small practice or finance office. And as users find their printing, scanning or faxing needs growing, they may find it cheaper to upgrade each device separately.
In a variation on the concept, Hewlett Packard recently launched the HP Digital Sender 9100. Accountants and finance departments often have to work with paper to leave a physical audit trail. It costs lots of money in staff time to carry the paper around. The Digital Sender scans in the hard copy original and can dispatch it as a fax to other people who need to see it. Or it will convert the document via optical character recognition into an email document or .PDF file that can be read and printed by the Adobe Acrobat Reader program. The unit can also be linked to a network fax package, which can write transmission details to the company’s auditing system, allowing document costs to be monitored.
Additional research by David Ludlow, VNU Labs
ERNST & YOUNG’S PRINTING INVESTMENT
Ordinarily, Big Five firm Ernst & Young has a reasonably modest print requirement, but twice a month it has to cope with a weekend run of half a million A4 billing sheets at its London headquarters.
Rather than simply buying off-the-shelf printers, the firm turned to the Dutch-based office and graphics equipment supplier Oce.
As a print specialist, Oce carries out an audit to establish the quantity and type of documents its clients typically produce and assess the existing IT infrastructure. It then designs a print set-up based upon the premise that documents should be printed in the most logical location: internal memos on local printers and mailshots on volume runs using centralised network printers.
After going through this process, E&Y placed an order for £360,000 worth of Oce systems: one Oce 9245 and four Oce 9260 laser printers alongside two Oce PRISMAflow print management systems.
‘The Oce solution permits load-sharing across all five printers and although no problems are anticipated, if any of the printers should fail, it will prove far less damaging to the overall print run,’ explained E&Y computer operations manager Max Hammond. ‘We also needed a flexible maintenance contract which recognised our irregular printing schedule, with engineers prepared to work around our requirements.
‘Finally, we required a system that was year-2000 compliant, accepted data from our Unix and mainframe platforms, and was capable of printing more than 225 images per minute. Oce was able to provide all this, as well as meeting our demanding timescales for installation.’