Any accountant who does not yet use the internet in the course of his or her work is likely to be at a disadvantage.
The World Wide Web, the internet’s hypertext-based graphical environment, offers a ‘point-and-click’ route to an ever-growing pool of information. Thanks to the sex industry’s formative role, the Web has suffered from a tawdry image. But publishers, professional bodies, corporations and even the UK government have all embraced the Web as a low-cost medium for reaching millions of business users. The more complex the document, the more money and time can be saved by putting it online. For publishers, the main saving is on printing costs – they only need to create one version, and any corrections will be instantly accessible to readers. The Web comes into its own for complex documents that change rapidly – for example, sales catalogues, company manuals, financial reports and government consultation papers.
Users who want to have a paper copy have to print and pay for it themselves.
But the extra expense is offset by the convenience of having the information instantly.
Enterprise software developers SAP & PeopleSoft are moving onto the Web in a big way. In February, SAP announced a new initiative, D&B for SAP R/3, that integrates Dun & Bradstreet business information with the German company’s R/3 application family.
A lot of R/3 users subscribe to D&B for credit, purchasing and marketing information, so it made sense to allow them to load it straight into their administrative programs. SAP promised the D&B-ready modules would be available in the UK by the end of the month.
SAP’s US rival PeopleSoft has set up a separate subsidiary to create the software that will drive the ‘PeopleSoft Business Network’ – intended to be a ‘portal’ to the entire People-Soft community. Its website creates a vision of the future in which users fire up Web consoles and see a master view of their company, along with a ‘to do’ list tailored to their various responsibilities. The browser will feed them relevant news and instant graphical information drawn from transactional and analytical databases.
In this vision of the future, the Web will not just be an avenue to information, but the means by which knowledge workers carry out their daily jobs.
BUSINESS NEWS SOURCES
The Daily Telegraph led the UK news media into cyberspace, but rival papers and news services did not waste time in following its example.
Whether you are interested in cricket scores, film reviews or background information on clients or rivals, these sites can bring you up to date with breaking news as it happens. Official sites, administered by the UK government’s CCTA and the European Commission, are essential bookmarks for instant access to official documents.
Merrill Lynch Sign up quickly. For the time being, the US investment bank is offering free access to its impressive research report database. Search on companies – mainly US, but plenty of European ones too – for analysts’ verdicts.
Bank of England A visit to the Bank of England site will help you learn the Old Lady’s reasoning behind interest rate decisions – a crucial barometer of the state of the UK economy. Also useful for information about preparing for the introduction of the euro.
CNN Financial News is very US-centric, but bang up-to-date with business and economic news. There are signs of increasing awareness of European issues. Good search facility and excellent daily market reports from around the world, including London.
The European Central Bank will become increasingly important as the UK readies itself for possible euro membership. The site provides background information on the bank and access to speeches by key personnel.
Internet Press is a jumping-off point for the world’s media – radio, television and print from Afghanistan to Zambia. It also has links to UK regional and national media.
The Financial Times is one of the best business news sites. It offers free search facilities going back one month, or paid access to historical archives built up by the paper and news agency, AFX.
The Daily Telegraph City Page is best of the online daily newspapers and probably the most comprehensive City page. The search facility stretches back years rather than months, and is an invaluable tool for tracking down half-remembered business stories.
Bloomberg is another good general business site, with access to stock quotes. Can be tricky to navigate, but worth persevering with.
BBC Business is excellent, particularly for background on weighty matters such as Europe. It includes contributions from many of the corporation’s top correspondents.
The Evening Standard business news site is good for same-day news from the Square Mile – and is often the first up with company results, economic news and which are the biggest risers and fallers on the FTSE.
Hoovers Company Capsules are potted corporate biographies of FTSE-100 companies and others. Probably the best place to start if you are looking for company Web addresses.
The government information site is the top source of public-sector information. Use it to gain instant access government news and documents – from the Budget to consultation documents.
The European Court of Justice is starting to make its presence felt, particularly in the international tax field. The complexity and dryness of the site probably has more to do with the nature of the information on it rather than its design.
ACCOUNTANCY’S VIRTUAL COMMUNITY
Over 5,000 people have joined the online ‘virtual community’ AccountingWeb run by Bristol-based Web consultancy Sift.
When AccountingWeb started in 1997, says editor Ben Heald, ‘the first three things we built in were access to Dialog’s databases, real-time news from Clarinews and links to websites. The idea was to sift what was there to get information for users. From these beginnings, the site’s content has snowballed. It can now deliver financial reports from ICC, give you the names and addresses of accountancy firms in particular areas and access to a ‘press zone’, with information provided by accountancy firms and supplier organisations.
‘The whole idea was to set up sector-specific services,’ says Heald. ‘AccountingWeb is free for anyone interested to see what’s there. Once you get that community together, the people who want to put their wares in front of accountants will pay to do so.’
Masquerading as ‘The Prudent Surfer’, Heald himself helped to build the momentum by sending out weekly email commentaries on things that were going on in the profession.
After criticising the purple background on CIMA’s site, Heald and his colleagues were invited to prove they could do better by pitching for the institute’s Web design contract. It won the pitch, and added ACCA to its client list last year. It also has joint projects underway with the English ICA, including an online directory of accounting software.
AccountingWeb paves the way for what many observers predict the Web will develop into: ‘virtual communities’. Says Heald: ‘However you identify yourself: as a biker, accountant or squash player – you will have relationships with the virtual communities you identify with. You’ll know who the other people are, and understand them.’
Among the resources on AccountingWeb is a software directory put together by the English ICA and Learned Information.
The service is free to English ICA members, or available on a per-use basis to non-members.
The collaboration is typical, says Heald, of the way the site has grown ‘through alliances and marketing arrangements that let us get our arms around as many accountants as possible’.
If you are reading this page, you already know about Accountancy Age’s site. Remember, the ‘search’ tab at the top of the page will give you access to an archive going back to 1996. So if you want to know how English ICA president Chris Swinson’s proposals for self-regulation of the profession evolved, or would like to revisit the arguments surrounding the Accounting Standards Board’s ‘Statement of Principles’, this is the site for you. It also gives you access to other magazines in the VNU publishing stable, including ‘Financial Director’, ‘Management Consultancy’ and ‘Computing’.
The complexity of the UK’s tax regime, and its universal relevance, makes this one of the most fruitful areas for online information. In February, non-profit tax organisation OneWorld launched a service that, for an annual subscription of #999, will give you access to every document that could possibly relate to tax regulations.
Tax Analyst UK includes Hansard notes and a full archive of Revenue documents, which can also be obtained for a #35 monthly subscription plus a 10p charge per page accessed.
The English ICA website includes explanations and descriptions of the wide range of activities undertaken by the institute, including the work of its Tax Faculty. The user will not come away understanding the institute’s bewildering structure, but there is an excellent links section.
Inland Revenue Despite a dull home page, the Inland Revenue’s website is well laid out and includes more imaginative design features than you would normally associate with the taxman. The site offers access to all-important Revenue press releases.
The Central Office of Information site provides a gateway to around 80 office departments and public bodies.
Customs & Excise does not go for the most imaginative of layouts, but offers comprehensive VAT information, consultation documents and details of the frequent amendments and clarifications to VAT rules.
This US-based tax directory is designed to be a starting point for people searching for tax and accounting information.
UK Taxation Directory is a catalogue of websites and material of potential interest to tax professionals and enthusiasts. It includes a directory of UK tax professionals. – Chris Quick
Chartered Institute of Taxation Everything you could ever want to know about tax. A well-designed site, helpfully split into two parts – one for beginners and one for experts. Beginners get a basic guide to self-assessment and even a selection of tax jokes. Experts can access copies of weighty but essential legislation, case law and CIoT submissions. Includes a ‘ready reckoner’ which assesses your income tax bill.
THE BIG FIVE – THE GIANTS STIR
As a rule, the major firms’ online shopfronts are heavyweight reproductions, with an emphasis on glitz at the expense of targeted content. Among the Big Five, where knowledge management is all the rage, the Web has become a critical tool in keeping staff and clients informed about their activities and expertise.
According to Ben Heald, editor of the online AccountingWeb site: ‘The Big Five still haven’t committed themselves to the internet yet. They’ve got incredible knowledge, but what they’re offering online just scratches the surface.’
In Heald’s analysis, the big firms make the mistake of thinking of the Web as a showcase rather than a community. ‘They should be spinning people off into the Web community as ambassadors. They could give employees an email address for life and the keys to their online databases. That way they would be more likely to use the firm’s services in the future.’
KPMG is probably the best of the big firms’ sites. Though not spectacular in design, it provides a clear route through to useful advice and information, including the firm’s massive portfolio of research publications.
The Web has changed that equation and though many serious information sources such as Reuters, Dun & Bradstreet and Companies House still require a charge, they are now priced at levels that bring them within the reach of ordinary business people. Through alliances with software vendors like SAP, online information services are being connected directly to accounting software.
The applications range from vetting potential clients or examining the competition, to checking credit histories and CVs of company directors, to assessing the products and capacity of a new supplier.
Companies House For accountants, the opportunity to search Companies House Direct online has got to be one of the best facilities on offer on the Web. The records of 1.2 million companies are available either for viewing online or downloading, or you can order traditional microfiches to be sent.
Data is also available on dissolved companies and directors – including those who have been disqualified.
Instant access to share price information, company accounts and high-level financial information used to be the preserve of City traders and affluent merchant banks.
Dun & Bradstreet, the giant of credit information, is rapidly growing its Web presence. As well as the basic DUNS number service and credit reports, the company is now providing supplier data for procurement managers and will even collect outstanding payments.
Business Gold is run by IFG Technology, based in London and Dublin, and provides a one-stop gateway to company information from Dun & Bradstreet, RM On-line and the Financial Times’ Extel Reports.
The Company information zone on AccountingWeb is another gateway into statutory information held at Companies House, through a link with online information company ICC. Very basic details are free, while a simple company profile costs #2. Access to scanned images of all the documents filed at Companies House costs #30. A number of other commercial information databases can be reached through a link with DataStarWeb, part of the Dialog Corporation empire.
SERVING THE PUBLIC SECTOR
E-commerce and the knowledge economy were two of the government’s big ideas when elected in May 1997. With ‘Government Direct’, administered by the CCTA, New Labour is threatening to achieve its target.
Parliament is an excellent source information with full listing of debates, reports and access to Hansard.
CIFPA The website reflects the body’s corporate image – worthy but somewhat dull. A good source for policy and technical information
The Local Government Association posts news on policy, initiatives and other events, making it a good stopping point.
The Treasury website can be difficult to penetrate, but is an essential source of information on fiscal and taxation issues. Tends to get swamped when at peak periods – like Budget season, but worth going back to.
The National Audit Office generates lots of excitement with its investigations, but the site is disappointing. It is updated infrequently and displays only a minimum of information.
Keep up to date with the Neill Committee on standards in public life here.