by Glenn Baker
Let’s ponder for a moment the amazing empowerment bestowed upon us by the almighty Internet. Those of us who’re old enough to remember the world before it, and were in business back then, will also remember what a laborious task it was to ‘do the accounts’ – using n-hing but pen, paper and calculator (no snide remarks about the abacus please!).
Fast forward to 2016, and things couldn’t be more different. Now we live in a world of empowerment; a world of smart, flexible, efficiency-driven accounting and financial software – often hosted online, compatible with a myriad of add-on apps or services, and accessible from just about anywhere, including that bure in Fiji or beach resort in Bali.
All this efficiency and functionality is enough to put a smile on the face of every business owner, bookkeeper and accountant. Accountants especially, have been able to step away from the drudge of data entry and exercise their advisory talents much more freely.
This fact is highlighted by Geraldine Magarey, Leader, Policy and Thought Leadership, for Chartered Accountants ANZ, when she sums up how the transition of accounting solutions to the cloud has impacted on chartered accountants (CAs).
“Cloud means faster, more timely information is available for both clients and their advisors. It opens up opportunities for mobility, scalability and collaboration, and aggregates multiple services – thereby eliminating complications associated with operating in data silos that don't always function together seamlessly.
“A CA can act more as a virtual CFO, providing immediate responses to changes in their and their clients' businesses rather than at specific points triggered by traditional reporting periods. “Also, depending on the cloud solution chosen, services can be securely hosted geographically locally, minimising some of the concerns accountants may have about cloud services,” Magarey says. “The uptime via cloud will generally be quicker than trying to recover from backup in the event of an on-premise server being damaged by fire or flood.”
More business owners are doing data entry themselves, she says, which impacts bookkeepers more than accountants.
“Clients still want and need the expertise of their accountant to assist with compliance obligations and to analyse and interpret financial and non-financial information related to their business. Innovative CAs see their evolving role as adding value to compliance work rather than a looming elimination of the need for it.”
There have been other forces come into play in the world of accounting software too. As Magarey points out, the opportunity to move away from data entry and more towards data analytics has been motivated by regulators and government agencies automating some of their processes, the availability of more sophisticated accounting practice management and data analytics tools, and the increasing complexity of clients' own needs.
Empowered to pull in their clients' practice management data, customer data and multiple external sources, she says CAs can now share forward looking, data driven insights with their clients, guiding them in such areas as business health and resource management, client churn and client acquisition.
“Even CAs doing and intending to stay in compliance work can benefit from how data analytics tools crunch and visualise numbers and information. Accountants calculate, compare and benchmark ratios all the time, so branching into data analytics need not be a daunting leap for them.”
“Granted, automation will mean saved time and expense, including facilitating the return of outsourced work such as bookkeeping and shadow accounting in-house; but there may be some lost revenue. And not all data analytics work will be considered billable,” says Magarey.
“However, these developments are likely to result in more satisfied clients who will remain loyal and become valuable referrers. Additionally, some CAs may choose to transition from time based to type of work based fee models.”
If this all sounds like a giant plug for a new breed of super-accountant, my apologies, but it’s nice to know it’s not just business owners who stand to benefit from all this new technology.
So how do software providers view this bold new cloud-enabled world?
Anna Curzon, managing director of Xero NZ, arguably the biggest disrupter in the accounting software space, agrees that the new order has impacted on accounting professionals around the world. Xero is starting to see accountants and bookkeepers change the way they think about running their own businesses.
“Many are moving into the cloud to realise their full potential and take advantage of the services and products available to them. For accounting professionals, the question should no longer be ‘how will I move to cloud accounting?’, but ‘when?’.”
Xero has been busy in the marketplace. In the past 12 months, it has shipped more than 1,200 features and product updates. “Many of these innovations are designed to give accountants back time, enabling them to move to a method of value-priced billing while taking on more clients at the same time,” explains Curzon.
“Our recent launch of eGST filing within Xero is a great example of the work our strong partnerships can produce: we paired with the Government, Inland Revenue, and over a thousand Xero businesses to bring this awesome feature to others. Now, businesses can file their GST returns in Xero and send them straight through to Inland Revenue electronically. There’s no double entry of your IR number or other information, Xero populates it all for you.”
Xero has also introduced its App Marketplace (www.xero.com/nz/marketplace/s/app-functions) where businesses and their advisors can connect with more than 500 specialised apps designed to answer small businesses’ most pressing challenges.
“Now businesses have a real-time view into their financials from one platform,” says Curzon. “This ensures the time they’re putting into their business is spent in the most valuable ways possible.
Stand by for more market disruption too. Curzon says a major future development in the accounting sector will be the introduction of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning in accounting software.
“This innovation will undoubtedly change the traditional accountant’s role, but that’s not a bad thing. There will always be a need for accounting entry, validation, verification, etc. Embracing these changes, and working in the cloud with Xero, creates a lot of efficiencies for accountants, in that they no longer have to do a lot of manual data entry.”
Getting your head in the cloud
The transition to cloud-based accounting software, and it’s accompanying add-ons, continues at pace. Even the larger incumbent software providers seem to have gained a greater appetite to embrace the cloud space.
For businesses that have not already made the switch to cloud accounting software, the advice from providers like Xero is first put a framework in place to keep the ship steady during the transition process.
Getting started on your cloud journey requires adjustment to existing routines and a transition in the way you think about your operations, says Curzon.
“By going all-in on cloud you’re able to better collaborate with your team, your clients and grow both your business and theirs. Xero allows businesses and their accountants to work from a single ledger, providing accurate and up-to-date financial data for them both to make more informed decisions.”
Moving to the cloud eliminates the need for constantly backing up files to a hard drive, adds Curzon. “As the documents are always saved in the cloud, it’s more often safer than lugging around a hard drive. The chances of your hard drive being stolen, destroyed or lost are a lot higher than the Internet going down for good.”
Curzon says there are already thousands of apps designed to assist a cloud-based business. “Most are low cost, helpful and enable you to run your business from your phone. These apps are also incredibly flexible, helping you scale up or down to meet your demands.
“Using cloud-based systems also promotes agility and innovation. The traditional pace of workflow speeds up due to the instant, up-to-date nature of cloud systems. Innovation is driven as a result of this, as employees are encouraged to work together to find the best way forward.”
Of course, even if you’ve made the decision to move to the cloud, there will always be some issues to be aware of.
Tish Brindle, general manager at Accredo, says if all you see is the ‘PR’ from cloud-only companies with large marketing budgets, then you might think that is how all businesses work. “Most accounting software, and software in general, is not cloud SaaS (Software as a Service) product. Hosting in the cloud is great as an option, but on-premise has its advantages too and smart business owners will continue to choose what works best for them,” she says. “Ultimately we are agnostic.”
Brindle says an issue people don’t consider when they buy into cloud SaaS offerings is data sovereignty. “Your data is your biggest investment in your accounting software, not the money you spend on the purchase or subscription.
“If you stop paying [a subscription] or want to change systems down the track, [ask yourself] can you retain access to your historic information in a meaningful fashion?"
Communications issues should also be considered, as with the companies in Henderson [reported in the media] who were offline for weeks. How long can your business function without your accounting software?
On that subject, Mike Rich, MD of Attaché Software, says medium sized accounting systems typically offer both cloud and on-premise solutions, otherwise known as a ‘hybrid’ system “as that’s the reality today”.
“The main cloud gripes in our space are the need for two better-than-average Internet connections (one for redundancy); plus data security concerns, especially with multiple add-ons.”
Attaché focuses on the ‘medium’ business sector across Australia and New Zealand – typically with $2 million to $40 million in annual sales. “We continue to add more features to strengthen our ‘all-in-one’ positioning,” says Rich. “Everything a medium sized business typically needs within the one package.”
Mark Kingsford, director corporate advisory services at Staples Rodway, also sounds a caution for businesses thinking about transitioning to a cloud software program. He believes the following are the main issues:
- Security over data
- Jurisdiction of data and regulatory accessibility
- Reliability and performance issues.
- Vendor viability.
- Vendor lock and data portability.
- Attractiveness to cyber-attack and increased incidence collateral damage.
- Dependence/lack of control.
In addition, there are many issues relating to cyber security generally that businesses need to consider as they operate in a more digitally integrated world, including:
- Administration of an increasingly fragmented application set.
- BYOD and risks attached.
- Defence from virus, attacks, etc.
- Data protection including authentications, encryption and passwords.
- Control over app use by staff.
- Backup/recovery plans.
- Staff awareness and training
“Cloud means faster, more timely information is available for both clients and their advisors. It opens up opportunities for mobility, scalability
and collaboration…” - Geraldine Magarey, Chartered Accountants ANZ
Choosing a solution
Choosing an accounting software package for your business is not a decision that should be made lightly. Although, interestingly, Mark Kingsford says accounting software solutions should no longer be viewed as an everlasting solution.
“Start-ups may progress through multiple systems as they grow and their needs change,” he says. “The ‘transition stress’ has decreased as portability and provisioning has improved.”
Companies should ensure that their data is secure, check their termination rights and portability, he says. “Avoid anything in beta, as your business shouldn’t be a guinea pig, and be hesitant about new kids on the block.
“Check with your adviser [before proceeding]. Staples Rodway spends a considerable amount of time assessing these tools.
"Staples Rodway is also agnostic when it comes to accounting software – although it is a platinum partner with Xero, with more than 1,000 files around the country, and has a similar number or more on MYOB."
The accountancy firm has also recently launched Staples Rodway RealTime (srrealtime.co.nz) – its own cloud accounting offering which leverages smart technology for the benefit of clients.
Kingsford’s advice for businesses that have delayed the transition process just a little bit too long is to break it down into steps:
- Step 1
Get advice. There is an easy way and a hard way to transition and advice will ensure correct and timely decisions are made and there is support throughout the process.
- Step 2
Define what you want. This includes what functionality, locations, users, reporting, history of data, etc.
- Step 3
Clean your data. There is no point taking over bad data as it provides unneeded reconciliation issues and transition time.
- Step 4
Plan your transition. What, When and Who. Don’t forget training!
- Step 5
Implement and test. This may include checks on balance integrity or running in parallel.
Accredo’s Tish Brindle suggests if you’ve put off changing your accounting system, you have probably also avoided or been unable to update your process systems in general.
“Change is always hard, so take the opportunity to review and improve your business to get the best information from your new system,” she says.
“Also, good planning and avoiding assumptions about similarities between the old and new systems never
“These days even small businesses expect their accounting system to do more than just compliance accounting. They want it to empower the whole business.”
– Tish Brindle, Accredo
Empowering your business
Accounting software has certainly made great advances over the past decade, and today a lot more is expected from online platforms.
“These days even small businesses expect their accounting system to do more than just compliance accounting,” says Brindle. “They want it to empower the whole business. They are all about improving efficiency and reducing human error, which has always been a focus for businesses.
“One of the biggest inefficiencies within accounting software is the double handling of information, so ‘enter it once’ is the trend we are seeing the most. It is the best place to gain as technology is now making this easier to communicate,” says Brindle.
“That is what we expect to see more of going forward.”