This article was first published in the May 2019 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Are accountants reliant or overreliant on technology? Is it all actually necessary, or are they being sold the glossy brochure? Is tech central to an  aspirational practice, or merely part of the evolution of being in business? 

These should be key tech questions for small and medium-sized practices (SMPs), but an even bigger question is whether practitioners themselves have identified these as key challenges or simply can’t see the wood for the trees.

The challenge of too much choice is a real one but with it comes a perceived lack of quality. Services are being delivered by relative newcomers, and their quest to build scale quickly can result in products that fall short on quality.

‘Rolling out apps that are simply not ready is my biggest bugbear,’ says Kylie Fieldhouse, principal at KFH Accounting. ‘I always assumed that before apps are released they are extensively tested, but this does not seem to be the case, and it undermines our confidence in introducing them to clients.’

Good fit

Even where there is confidence in the choices that have been made, there is still the tricky matter of figuring out how to fit it all together with existing IT systems. ‘Fitting the great tech that’s out there into legacy practice management suites that are light-years behind is a real issue,’ says John Toon, manager at Beever and Struthers. ‘Until they innovate or enable deep integrations between the leading cloud apps and their systems, it will remain a struggle.’

But it’s not just with legacy systems where there are issues; connectivity in the cloud can still be a problem. Glenn Martin, CEO of Avery Martin, explains: ‘Even when you identify something that you can see is of value and is cloud-based, there is no guarantee that it will have the connections with the other software you use, and you can still end up with data in two different places.’

Another problem in the cloud world seems to be more and more tools that want to position themselves as the central point. ‘I am after a dashboard of dashboards,’ says Peter Jarman, managing partner at PJCO. ‘Every app seems to want to create one to help us manage clients, but there are just too many. I would love to be able to take snippets from all of them and consolidate them into just one.’

Keeping up

Making it all work together will help drive efficiencies, but is too much time being spent on reviewing and getting to grips with technology? Or worse, being pushed and pressured into making unnecessary purchases?

‘I love innovation, but there is so much choice that it can be overwhelming to work out what plugs into what,’ says Archna Tharani, former director at Oculus Accounting. ‘The number of tech products is exponentially increasing, so keeping up with what they all do is a time-consuming job.’

CooperFaure director Freddie Faure agrees. ‘The pressure to be digitally advanced can lead to panic buying without a proper evaluation as to whether it fits the business model and what exactly the firm is trying to replace. It would be interesting to see how many apps that businesses have bought and continue to pay subscriptions for have never been fully deployed.’

Show me the ‘so what?’

On the flip side, are suppliers thinking fully about the power and relevancy of their tools and how they fit into the life and role of an accountant? Alan Woods, MD of Woods Squared, thinks they could do better. ‘The technology suppliers are understandably passionate and excited by the tools that they are developing, but often they don’t seem to have considered the “so what?” question,’ he says. ‘Their tool may be great, but what is the benefit to us as the advisers or to the business owner?’

In the absence of that sort of thinking, Mark Telford, director of Telfords Chartered Accountants, suggests a simple formula for practices to evaluate the usefulness of any new technology. ‘While looking at any tech, there are three questions to ask. Does it enable me to get the work done quicker? Does it help me provide a service better? And does it allow me to introduce a new service that a client wants, needs or may be interested in?

‘Don’t just treat a software subscription like a January gym membership,’ says Telford. ‘Use it or get rid of it.’

Richard Sergeant is managing director of consultancy Principle Point.