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Bets off: Practice management day shows future is already here. By Rob Lewis

2nd Nov 2007
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Jockey on horseAscot racecourse played host to the AccountingWEB practice management conference yesterday, run for the first time in conjunction with Sift sister company PracticeWEB. Reflecting the profession’s growing interest in all things technological, whether outsourcing, Web 2.0 or integrated practice systems, it showed there are plenty of accountants eager to keep up with the galloping pace of change.

After an introduction from Sift Media chief executive and pioneering "prudent surfer" Ben Heald, David Reynolds of the International Association of Accountants Innovation & Technology Consultants (IAAITC) kicked off events with a call for firms to embrace new technologies, even if it meant changing business processes. He emphasised the importance of the demographics facing modern practices; while internet take-up may lag among many smaller practices, that picture will soon alter.

"The reality is, people over 45 don’t use the internet," he said. "After that, you get a trough which doesn’t pick up until you reach the silver surfers. But the people coming into practice and joining firms today are certainly internet savvy, and they will be managers in five years."

Reynolds noted that 80% of Britain’s sole practitioners are over 55. "These practices will soon evaporate," he said. After setting the scene, he proceeded to look at the ways firms could generate alternative revenue streams in a Web 2.0 environment and monetise their web presence.

Afterwards, Reynolds was encouraged that the firms in attendance weren’t just thinking about their use of technology, but were exploring what they can do with it. "They may not understand precisely what to do, but they understand the issues," he said of his audience. "Do the rest matter?"

One of the other speakers that morning was tax outsourcing pioneer Shaun Crozier of ieTaxguard, who opened a few eyes with his presentation on company’s automated tax processing systems. With 6,500 personal clients on its books, the firm claimed to have processed 97% of their returns before the end of October. With the table cleared, ieTaxguard is ready to take on work from other practices and is running pilot outsourcing schemes with two major accountancy firms, he said.

Crozier gave the audience an overview of the processes involved and highlighted regulatory implications such as those raised by the Data Protection Act. For example, if outsourcing involves taking data out of EU jurisdiction, it becomes necessary to inform the parties involved. The audience showed their interest with a series of probing questions.

"Accountants are still reticent about outsourcing, but last year’s hostility is turning into acceptance," Crozier said. "Information integrity and security is not such a big issue now and a lot of the people we talk to would like to outsource accounts production as well as tax."

While this year’s conference had clearly attracted a good portion of the UK’s most IT-inclined practitioners, the portrait it painted of the profession overall clearly bemused some. Gail Perry, managing editor of our US sister site had flown in to attend and offered a transatlantic perspective on the event.

"I’m amazed so few accountants in this country are using the internet and online services," she confessed at lunch. "In the States, everybody’s doing it."

Embracing IT

One highlight of the afternoon was a practice technology "question time" panel session hosted by AccountingWEB technology editor John Stokdyk, playing Robert Kilroy Silk to a host of experts. They comprised: Ian Lucey, sales director at Relate Software who had flown over that morning from Dublin; Nick Longden, national sales manager at MYOB; Ian Thompson, senior manager at practice management software developer Star Computers; and Simon Hurst from The Knowledge Base, which offers training and IT support to accountants nationwide.

Stokdyk quoted recent research by MYOB, Sage and NB2BC which showed that accounting firms were taking up the IT chalice in ever greater numbers. Tellingly, over half of the firms in NB2BC’s poll resold software, but only 11% also implemented it and trained clients to use it. Simon Hurst asked the audience about their technology habits, and found that correspondingly while 70% of those present offered IT advice, only 10% undertook implantation and training (the vast majority of the audience, incidentally, were from mid-range firms with two to five partners).

When Hurst asked how many members of the audience had used Microsoft’s latest operating system Vista, only three hands were raised. However, it was something of a spurious question, as one attendee pointed out: most of the software developers had yet to make Vista versions of their products available.

Ben Heald asked what chance Google had of making a dent in the market with their free tools, but audience reaction indicated there was a general concern about transferring their data to "the cloud". Barely 10% were willing to expose their clients’ information in this way, although responses improved markedly if attendees could be promised a secure server.

Ian Thompson wondered wryly how many of the people who changed their minds actually knew precisely what a secure server was. Nevertheless, casting an eye over the event thus far, he echoed David Reynold’s earlier demographic contrast between the attitude of the profession overall and those who had come to Ascot. "You’re not going to get the Luddites coming to a seminar like this," he conceded.

The panel included a discussion over the possibilities of achieving the holy grail of practice management software users: full integration between applications. As Hurst discovered, around 70% of those present used practice tools from more than one vendor. What, an audience member wanted to know, was the panel doing to facilitate compatibility between them all?

The replies from the panel were mixed. "Our clients want do deal with one supplier," said Longden. "And you will never get the same integration from multiple systems that you will from one vendor."

For Relate, Lucey took up a similar stance: "You don’t really want integration. What you want is one program that will do everything for you."

A practice management specialist rather than full tax/practice suite supplier, Star Computers was more collaborative, Thompson noted, since it had to work with lots of different systems. As a sign of the company's commitment to interoperatbility, Star had recently released a version that integrates with Digita tax and accounts production programs using the xAPL data exchange standard. He also said that interoperability would only arrive when users started demanding it from their suppliers.

Simon Hurst, introduced by Stokdyk as “Mr xAPL” for his work in co-ordinating the practice data standard while chairman of the ICAEW IT Faculty, urged the audience members to do just this.

"Our customers haven’t expressed any demand for integration," countered Longden. "If that’s what they want, they should tell us."

It turned out that the questioner was an MYOB client and promptly did just that, urging Longden to get on the xAPL case. It just goes to show that in the digital age, there’s still much to be said for the old fashioned face-to-face conference.


Replies (3)

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By quayer
02nd Nov 2007 16:53

Great Event
It was a great event, all the sessions I attended had some idea which I could apply immediately in my Practice.

What a way to end the day with Will Kentish. The support staff led by Rachel as usual were very helpful


Thanks (0)
By AnonymousUser
07th Nov 2007 13:47

Many Thanks from PracticeWEB
May I thank all the PracticeWEB licensees and AccountingWEB members who attended this year and made it a great success.

The range and depth of the speakers proved to be provide a great balance and the active participation of all delegates in areas of debate was outstanding.

Planning now begins in earnest for next year!

Any suggestions for topics or speakers can be forwarded to me at [email protected]

Richard Sergeant
Client Relationship Manager
0117 915 8639

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By AnonymousUser
07th Nov 2007 13:53

Tell your software suppliers what YOU want
As an attendee and the questioner who posed the question I would urge all software users who use more than one supplier for their practice software (accounts production, tax returns, timesheets etc.) to contact their suppliers to ask them what they are doing about being able to integrate their software with other suppliers.

As Nick Longden said, they are receiving the feedback that a sole supplier is what is wanted by their customers.

If they receive feedback that integration between different suppliers products is what is wanted then they will have no excuses and will hopefully do something about it.

If you are content to sit back and do nothing then you will have to fit in with them rather than they fit in with what you - the customer - want!

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