IT Focus - Wired up for clients
John Stokdyk meets a practice that has learned to love the Internet.
John Stokdyk meets a practice that has learned to love the Internet.
When partners at North London-based Berg Kaprow Lewis decided tonet. build up their client base among contract computer staff in the early 1990s, they could not have imagined the long-term impact it would have on their firm.
The 11-partner practice has more than doubled its turnover in the past four years and has become, in the words of marketing manager Elizabeth Moss, ‘probably one of the most IT-literate firms in North London’.
Because of its close association with the computer industry, Berg Kaprow Lewis has been carried along by the digital revolution. From a single modem connection four years ago, the firm’s electronic infrastructure has blossomed into a practice-wide intranet that handles email and telephone communications and gives staff a single point of access to all the company’s files.
‘IT is part of our philosophy,’ says partner Neil Graham. ‘We are a very forward-thinking practice and want our clients to see that. A lot of them are in hi-tech companies themselves and want to know that we talk their language.’
Graham says the firm has invested ‘a fortune’ in building up its technology, most of which blinks and hums in a separate room ‘that looks like mission control’. He credits managing partner Brian Berg for the firm’s adventurousness.
‘Brian’s been at the forefront,’ he says. ‘He’s always been a bit of a techno-freak – into anything with flashing lights.’
But with a relatively young average age, the other partners consider themselves to be quite clued-up on technology too. ‘We’re interested and want to see how we can use technology to make the practice more efficient and more profitable,’ says Graham.
Graham was the first partner at the firm to acquire a modem connection when he opened a dial-in account with Internet provider Pipex (now part of the international UUNet empire).
He had been told about the World Wide Web – the Internet’s point-and-click pool of interlinked hypertext pages – and wanted to see for himself.
The firm later took out an account with US on-line service CompuServe and Graham took advantage of its on-line Web-design tools to create Berg Kaprow Lewis’s first home page. Although the Web lured Graham on to the Net, he says the biggest benefits come from using email.
‘The guys I work for in the IT field are more likely to keep in touch with a keyboard than with pen and paper,’ he says. ‘Email is useful for keeping in touch or reaching people at unsociable hours. Lots of my clients are abroad and email means we don’t have to worry about time zones.’
Graham has even developed his own little program for handling client accounts on PCs. The clients fill out their accounts on Excel spreadsheets and email them back to Berg Kaprow Lewis. Graham can access them at any time.
It may have started from small beginnings, but the firm’s Internet strategy was carefully planned out and was based around the skills of IT partner Jeremy Hyman. ‘We are one of the few firms of our size to have an IT partner,’ says Graham. ‘Jeremy came on a consultant basis, but then we realised this was a role we needed not just within the practice, but also to market IT consultancy to other practices.’
Hyman says that, when he first started working for Berg Kaprow Lewis two years ago, the partners were probably keener on technology than their resources allowed. ‘They knew what they wanted, but they needed someone who could deliver. That was my brief,’ he says.
Getting better all the time
After an initial study, Hyman made the ‘brave decision’ to transplant the firm’s network from an ageing Novell NetWare server on to Microsoft Windows NT Server (see box on infrastructure).
For networking, Windows NT uses the transmission control protocol/internetworking protocol, which instantly made the firm compatible with the rest of the Internet.
Hyman concedes the total upgrade cost was ‘pretty big, but it has paid off. We’re an efficient practice. We have very fast access to accurate information that is up to date. The firm couldn’t function as it does without having a good infrastructure.’
When Berg Kaprow Lewis installed ISDN connections for its data network, it greatly expanded the network bandwidth available for the firm’s website.
Graham’s original experimental page had been upgraded with the usual details about the firm’s services and partners, accompanied by thumbnail portraits.
‘It was okay for a year ago,’ says Elizabeth Moss. ‘There have been such dramatic improvements and the market has moved on so fast that we wanted a site that was faster and cleaner.’ Moss also wanted more information on how many people visited the site and the pages they examined.
‘We found it very difficult to measure anything on the old site. Most of the hits we got, we probably made ourselves,’ says Moss.
To accompany the new infrastructure, the firm commissioned Harmony Internet to construct and manage a new, more dynamic site, with a budget of #2,000.
As part of the arrangement, the service sends regular traffic reports.
Having recently unveiled the new on-line identity http://www.bklchart.co.uk”, Moss plans further developments. ‘We want to offer sites within sites and extend our services by offering things like tax advice on line,’ she says. ‘The Web is another medium through which we can offer our skills.’
Moss uses the Web herself to keep an eye on what other accountancy firms are up to on line, while the company’s partners and other accountancy staff are encouraged to use it for research and reference.
Neil Graham says the Companies House on-line service is ‘a great time-saver’ for new company filing, company searches and background checks on potential clients. The site is accessed from two machines at Berg Kaprow Lewis, each of which is equipped with a special version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser program that gains access to the Companies House intranet.
An intranet uses the same communications protocols as the wider Internet, but usually operates as a secure in-house Web facility protected from the outside world by password access and firewall barriers.
Since the network upgrade, Hyman turned his attention to building Berg Kaprow Lewis’s own intranet, which now operates as a central ‘knowledge base’ for the practice’s correspondence, guidance notes and reference library. ‘We’ve been running the intranet for 18 months and are so pleased with it, we decided to sell it commercially,’ he says (see box).
Partner David Landau joined Berg Kaprow Lewis from Saffery Champness in 1994. Though much bigger, his previous firm had less effective technology. ‘I moved here and was shocked to see they already had basic email in place,’ says Landau.
Landau also appreciates how quickly the Berg Kaprow Lewis intranet gives him access to the firm’s entire document archive. ‘Say I’ve done work on tax treatment of aircraft and you ring me and ask if I have any information. If I remember advising Mr Smith on his plane, I can type “aircraft NEAR Smith” and the intranet will find the letter in seconds.
‘We can call up documents on screen while we’re talking to clients on the phone or in person, which means you can talk intelligently to them.’
Comparing the wired way of working to his previous experiences, Landau comments: ‘We are now able to grow because we have the technology to support us. I can’t say categorically, but the technology means we are able to act for more clients and offer more niche services. We have all the departments that Safferys has, but ours have one or two people, rather than 15. It’s a more compact unit.’
To support his contention, he adds: ‘All I can say is that our turnover has doubled in four years and is currently growing 20% a year.’
Graham agrees that the Internet has brought ‘phenomenal benefits’, such as convenience and better communication within the firm and with clients.
But there is one downside, he adds. ‘Modern technology does make life a little impersonal.’ With a few of his clients, Graham communicates almost exclusively via email. But if he gets really lonely, he can use the firm’s videoconferencing facility.
Moss pines for the day when the Internet will be as easy to use as television.
‘It’s a way off yet,’ she admits, ‘but you need to get on it and keep moving. To get on at a later date will be even more difficult.’
Jeremy Hyman, who was rewarded for his efforts by being made a partner of the firm last year, is convinced the Internet is an essential tool for any service industry.
In recent weeks, he has been pounding the pavements of London to spread the message by trying to convince law firms and even rival accountants that his home-made practice management intranet system can give them a leg-up into the digital age.
‘We’re a service industry and the only useful thing we have is knowledge,’ says Hyman. ‘For people whose currency is knowledge, the faster they can handle it, the better they will do. If we can give a client cashflow projections they can tinker with, and email to the bank the same day, we’re providing a tremendous service.’
INTRANET: GATEWAY TO ON-LINE PRACTICE MANAGEMENT
Intranets are the current buzz in the on-line world and, true to form, Berg Kaprow Lewis has jumped on the bandwagon.
‘We had a good network with lots of information, but it was somewhat dispersed,’ says Jeremy Hyman. ‘People were doing things in slightly different ways. I wanted a way to bring everything together so it was up to date and always available.’
An intranet was his solution. Using tools supplied with Windows NT Server, Microsoft BackOffice and Internet Explorer, Hyman stitched together a Web-based ‘front-end’ to every directory on the firm’s central servers.
Whenever a new document or file is saved on the NT Server, it is automatically scanned and indexed so the intranet system can access it more quickly.
Where Microsoft Word might take 15 minutes to scan a single hard disk, the intranet can pick up matches on up to 500,000 documents in a couple of seconds.
‘There’s nothing magic about it,’ says Hyman. ‘Because we’d already made the investment in Windows NT, we had TCP/IP and Internet Explorer. There was almost nothing to do besides design the site and put it on the server.
It was one of the easiest things I have done and one with the quickest payback.’
Along with the search tools, the intranet provides access to client contact data and a single source for practice forms and information – from forthcoming events, to training schedules.
The firm also encourages employees to use the Web for research, and highlights useful sources in a list of ‘firm favourites’.
Berg Kaprow Lewis intranet has been rechristened ‘Prism Knowledge Management’, and is being marketed commercially. The firm does not sell the software, but offers to install it in three days for #1,000 per day.
Because it uses standard Microsoft commands, Prism can link to other Windows applications, including commercial time and fees recording packages.
Last year’s network upgrade at Berg Kaprow Lewis included four NT servers which connect to 80 PCs running Windows 95. Hyman would not confirm how much the upgrade cost, but says the partners were comfortable about making the investment. ‘We had reached a bottleneck with Novell. We had to spend more money on Novell or revisit what we were using. The margin between them wasn’t great.’
At the same time that the firm installed the new network, it opted for a new Internet service provider, shifting the account from Pipex to PSInet.
It also bought a ‘primary’ ISDN package from BT, which now provides 30 high-speed data lines. As well as giving very fast access to the Internet, ISDN combined with Windows NT and an application called Active Voice makes it possible for the network to handle both voice and electronic messages.
‘We like the concept of a universal in-tray, which holds internal mail, external voicemail and data. If you get a message on the phone, your PC screen will tell you and all you have to do to hear it is double-click the message icon,’ says Hyman.