Where there’s smoke there’s IT

In today’s office IT environments there are so many interacting components it is all too easy for the software supplier to blame the hardware, the hardware supplier to blame the operating system, both the software and hardware suppliers to blame the network system – then software suppliers can blame each other if their products ‘interfere’ with each other. The support staff of one supplier to accountancy practices (no longer in existence) were once discussing the problem because they sold both software and hardware: they couldn’t so easily shift the blame as it would still be their problem.

Still, as one person observed, if there was smoke pouring out of the back of the computer they could be reasonably sure it was a hardware problem – but even then there was room for debate!

There are plenty of well-known high profile scandals caused by failures of major IT systems costing millions of pounds of public money.

What is not quite so well known is the number of smaller-scale problems that hit ordinary businesses and the evidence of this year’s survey conducted by the Institute of Chartered Accountants’ IT Faculty is that accountancy practices are hit more often than they ought to be.

Accountants in practice responding to the survey were asked if they had suffered ‘business critical’ failure during the past two years. Nearly a quarter (24%) reported their time and fees recording software had failed; 13% reported their personal taxation software had failed. And in most cases, it was clear that it really was the software that was to blame.

‘Business critical’ failure is not trivial. Usually it would mean a few days of lost time. It means staff time spent troubleshooting problems instead of getting on with their work. It could even mean days spent on tracing errors, making corrections and re-running work.

Clearly accountancy practice software suppliers have work to do. But there are grounds for optimism. One possible cause for low standards in the practice software industry is that there have been too many suppliers, each with too small a client-base to sustain adequate development and support.

The consolidation that has been taking place has meant there are now fewer products available so there is much less software for practices to chose from, but hopefully what there is will work better.

We shall see.

  • Paul Booth is technical manager, IT Faculty, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales.

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