This article was first published in the October 2015 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

A growing number of people spend much of their day using apps to do everything from checking train times to exchanging important documents with clients. Given the popularity and effectiveness of apps, it is worth considering whether they could help you run your business or do your work more effectively.

What are apps?

Apps (short for ‘applications’) are small, self-contained programs that run on smartphones or tablets rather than desktop computers, and allow tasks to be performed in a user-friendly way.

Because modern smartphones come with powerful web browsers, they can do pretty much anything a desktop computer can. But fiddling about typing URLs into a web browser and visiting endless websites can be a cumbersome experience on a phone; standalone apps are designed to give users better control over what they are doing and to make the whole experience quicker and easier.

Apple started the apps trend with its iPhones; others soon followed, and now there are thousands of apps available for Apple, Android, Windows, Blackberry and Nokia phones. Tablet computers can run apps too but offer the advantage of bigger screens.

Many apps are simply cut-down versions of computer programs such as word processors, spreadsheets, presentation makers, music production suites, video and image editors, GPS and travel information providers, as well as email and other communication tools.

The business angle

A whopping 73% of businesses already make use of apps every day, according to job site PeoplePerHour. Some take a blanket approach and integrate apps as part of all their work processes; in others some staff use them to organise tasks and check emails while they are on the go.

As with most business tools, your decision on whether or not to use apps will depend on what you need them for and if using them is cost-effective. You need to research the different apps, assess the security, speak to people in the know and test them out.

‘Often by simply talking to staff, senior figures in the organisation can get a better sense of where apps could improve task efficiency, but also employees tend to have useful opinions about good apps, including ones they have been using themselves already,’ says William Higham, CEO of consultancy The Next Big Thing.

There are some very popular free apps for general business use. Dropbox allows staff to compose and share documents, pictures and videos in the cloud. And Evernote lets you instantly store and share notes, clips, images and recordings.

Other apps can help perform everyday tasks and objectives. An app such as Bookkeeping can handle sales, receipts and purchases, while an app such as AnyMeeting can let you hold meetings and share presentations with others.

Even the sacred ground of internal communication within organisations, which has been dominated by email for so many years, is seeing a notable shift towards social collaboration and task sharing apps such as Asana, Jira and Huddle. They allow users to log in and see what tasks they’ve set themselves, what others have set them, or what they’ve set others, and what stage they’re at – things you can’t do with the traditional backwards and forwards communication of emails.

There are also apps specifically for accountants, whether in practice or working in business. ‘Basic accounting can be performed on apps such as QuickBooks, where you can see your client’s financial information and how up to date reconciliations are,’ explains Jon Dawson, a partner at Kingston Smith. ‘While others like Receipt Bank can be integrated with the company or firm’s accounting software, so you can take a picture of an invoice or receipt on your phone and it uploads it into the accounting system.’

Know the limits

However, phone-based apps have less functionality than a PC-based program. If you wanted to upload a lot of transactions and reconcile them, say, then you would have to click into each one to reconcile with an app, whereas on a desktop you can do bulk reconciliations. What’s more, journals and full sets of accounts still cannot be put into the app versions of accounting software.

‘The screen size of a phone does come with its limitations, including trying to get through multiple pages of a document,’ says Dawson. ‘But there are still plenty of everyday tasks that accountants can perform in the palm of their hands. And we’ve got hybrids now, with the iPhone 6 Plus offering a noticeably larger screen.’

Tablet computers also allow apps to be used for the more complex tasks while staff are on the go.

‘Mobile devices and the apps within them will create a paperless office ultimately,’ says Higham. ‘There’s no longer a need to print off data or write information on a scrap of paper – just pick up your phone or tablet.’

Some organisations adopt a specific app such as Huddle or Asana as their standard collaboration and task allocation tool for all staff. Given the number of people involved, the specific tasks required and potential security issues, they often contact the provider directly and set up a subscription. For Huddle, it is about £30 per person a month, while for Asana it is £10 per person.

Dawson says: ‘If you’ve got a lot of staff, costs can be a sensitive issue. But you’ve got to look at the efficiencies that you will generate. If it reduces your email traffic, for instance, and makes it easier for people to see what stage work is at, and you use it as an alternative to collaborate and communicate with clients, it can have significant advantages.’

Businesses and firms could even have an app tailor-made to their specific requirements. ‘If an owner or manager is willing to put in the effort to establish if it will be time and cost-effective, they could have an app built in just a few weeks to handle anything within the business,’ says Christer Holloman, a new media expert.

But Holloman warns that using an app for too many tasks and ventures runs the risk of just re-creating a website or intranet within the app. ‘The reason people like apps is they have a specific purpose, otherwise they forget what’s in them,’ he points out. ‘They also need to be simple to use by just swiping across the screen, so complicated spreadsheets might not work on a small screen app.’

It is also vital for senior managers to know and communicate to staff exactly who has access to the apps and how to use them properly and securely. A decent password and ID system is vital in case an employee’s phone or tablet containing valuable data is lost or stolen.

Dawson says: ‘There should be passwords for accessing things like email apps or Asana, and the communications themselves should have encrypted technology. A lot of companies still rely on the basic email accounts where you log your details into the iPhone mail app, and you can access information there generally without a password.’

Overall, apps are the perfect tool for lifting out a piece of functionality within the business and facilitating that service. Some companies and accountancy firms might already have a desktop-based customer management system or intranet to perform business tasks, but the beauty of an app is that it gets into an employee’s headspace as soon as they pick up their phone or tablet.