Advice in short supply for SMEs

The call followed a claim from e-commerce minister Stephen Timms that accountants do vital work encouraging SMEs to make better use of technology.

‘Many accountants see this as out of their remit, but they should see IT advice as incredibly important to growing businesses. Those that harness technology are the ones who will ultimately prosper,’ said Simon Edwards, general manager of Microsoft Business Solutions UK.

‘Accountants must recognise that businesses will always look to them for advice. They should see this as something that adds consultancy skills to their role, in a market of software products that reduce available accounting work and the advent of a higher threshold on audit work.’

But Philip Keown, head of technology risk management at Grant Thornton, said that a good knowledge of specific software packages was not enough, making it difficult for them to give more general technology advice.

‘What about dealing with networks or business continuity? If an accountant doesn’t know about these things then it’s dangerous to advise on them.’

Mark Holland, Baker Tilly partner and head of the firm’s IT advisory group, said: ‘Firms that are reluctant to get involved (in offering IT advice) may be risk averse. There are many stories of failed IT systems. Firms obviously do not wish to damage good client relationships. They may also be concerned to move out of their comfort zone, and would prefer to stay with accounting and tax services as these have always worked so far.’

Holland agreed SMEs are looking for independent IT advice, and accountants with the right IT skills are ‘ideally placed’ to offer this service.

‘Accountants should ensure that both parties understand what they are being provided. During the implementation phase, it is important that customer and reseller develop their business relationship, and this ‘consultant’ should then take a backseat.’

Holland warned that firms must be wary about potential conflicts of interest if they are their client’s auditor.

Timms made his comments about the value of accountants to SMEs at the launch of the Accountancy Age-sponsored E-Commerce Awards. Applications for the award must be in by 30 July, with the overall winner announced at a gala dinner on 6 October.

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