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IT Healthcheck: Initial consultation with Cooksey Perry & Co

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24th Mar 2006
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As part of AccountingWEB's new reality IT project, Simon Hurst from The Knowledge Base recently met with brave volunteer Chris Cooksey to gain an overview into the firm's IT issues. Here's the tech doctor's first diagnosis.

Background check
Let's get the bad news out of the way first. Cooksey Perry & Co is pretty good at IT. Those of you hoping for a horror story of out-of-date anti-virus software, no firewalls and inadequate backup procedures are going to be disappointed. However, for Cooksey Perry as for most firms, there are areas where IT could be doing more to contribute to the efficiency and profitability of the practice.

Infrastructure & communications
First of all we'll look at the basics. Cooksey Perry uses a small peer-to-peer network. The computers are well specified and they have a well priced maintenance contract with a local company. The firm has a broadband internet connection, shared via a hub with a built in firewall. Having a firewall is essential, but it is also vital to ensure that it is properly configured. The computers are protected by anti-virus software that is set to keep itself up-to-date automatically. In addition, they periodically double-check for viruses using an alternative anti-virus product.

Chris Cooksey was concerned about the amount he was paying for the firm's broadband connection, and phone bills. We suggested he look at www.adslguide.co.uk to see an overview of the different supplier's offerings, including combined phone and broadband packages. We also suggested he consider using an existing dial-up account as a backup so that in the event of problems with the broadband connection, it would still be possible to continue to send and receive emails.

I spoke to Chris about the dangers of emails ' he was well aware of the threat posed by 'phishing' emails and also the dangers of attachments in emails from unfamiliar addresses. Of course, these days you're probably as likely to receive an infected email 'from' a known address as from an unknown one. Many viruses are designed to harvest addresses from the victim's address book. This used to just mean that you had to ensure that no-one with your address in their address book was open to infection. Now it's much worse as the latest viruses spoof the from address as well as the to address. So an email from someone you know could in fact be an email generated by a virus on a third-party's computer that just had your contact's details in their address book.

Data back-up and recovery procedures
The firm has a reasonable, if somewhat discretionary, backup procedure. All data is backed up regularly, with the actual frequency depending on the volume of work done. Importantly, backups are frequently removed from the premises and stored at an external location. The firm considered using an online backup service and this is something that it would be well worth looking into further.

Backing up is a great idea, but it is also vital to ensure that backups can be restored. While Chris had indeed ensured that the correct data was being backed up, and had tried restoring certain sets of data, we did identify the possibility of using a rarely used laptop computer to test the ability to restore clients' accounts data, without endangering the live data. We suggested extending the backups to include important, but often forgotten, files such as document and spreadsheet templates. Word's Normal.dot template file is well worth backing up regularly, particularly if you use lots of AutoText entries and set up your own styles and macros. In addition, it would be a good idea for Cooksey Perry to consider a more automatic back-up process.

From backup to disaster recovery ' or for those who prefer the half-full pint ' business continuity. Generally, the bigger and more complex the organisation, the more complicated the business continuity plan. For a small organisation, the IT element may need to be little more than the provision of a standalone computer, or small network, with internet access and the ability to use all relevant programs and restore the up-to-date data. Discussing this area in detail, Chris realised that, while sorting out current programs wouldn't be too much of an issue, there might be a problem with some of the older program versions that could be required to access archive data. We also discussed the idea of setting up a spare computer with all the necessary software and keeping it off the premises, maybe by adopting some sort of reciprocal arrangement with another local (but not too local!) firm.

Hardware issues
With regard to hardware, we thought that Chris might find adding a second monitor to his own computer to be a relatively cheap and significant contributor to productivity. We also recommended he look at a duplex (double-side printing) colour laser printer. For a small organisation about £200 should buy an adequate model, such as the Samsung 510.

Software defficiencies
There is a significant gap in Cooksey Perry's set of software. While they use IRIS for their accounts and tax work, they use a series of Excel spreadsheets for time recording. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this arrangement - for a small organisation, it may be an adequate way to record time. However, Chris is aware that a dedicated application might make things easier. For Cooksey Perry the issue is a simple cost-benefit one. Our recommendation was to have a look at some time recording/practice management packages, perhaps starting with their current main supplier, and to look at the issue more broadly than as just a method of recording time. Most of the current packages ' even relatively cheaper ones ' now provide important practice and contact management features as well as just time and billing. The right package could not only make the business of turning time into money more straightforward, but could also provide the client with a central client database that would facilitate letter production, document management and overall communications with clients.

Document retrieval
Another software recommendation was to have a look at one of the desktop search engines such as Copernic Desktop Search. For an organisation moving towards holding documents electronically, such an application provides an excellent (and often free!) way to retrieve documents quickly.

Progress towards the paperless office is important to Chris both to maximise utilisation of limited space, and also to improve efficiency. Outgoing documents and important archives are already held in well-structured folders, and the next stage could be to acquire a sheet-feed scanner and start scanning incoming documents to add to the existing electronic client record.

Whilst looking at software issues, we mentioned Microsoft's Action Pack to Chris. This is a subscription based service that provides access to lots of Microsoft software for about £200 per annum. It is available to "organisations [that sell] Microsoft products, or provide solutions based on Microsoft products and technologies to third-party customers." Cooksey Perry do provide consultancy on Microsoft Excel to some of their clients so might possibly be eligible. Certainly for any organisation that does comply with the Action Pack requirements, it can be a very cost effective way of getting access to the latest Microsoft products.

Follow-up work
We also looked at the way Cooksey Perry uses its general office software. While being pretty proficient users of Word and Excel, Chris acknowledged that they had plenty more to learn about Microsoft Outlook. We left Chris with some self-assessment evaluations for the Microsoft Office products. Once he has had a chance to complete and return these, we will be able to make more specific recommendations about some areas where additional training might pay significant dividends.

This is just a quick overview of the initial meeting. We will be discussing some of these areas with Cooksey Perry in more detail in the next consultation, and will keep in touch to see how things progress.

About the author
Simon Hurst is a former chairman of the ICAEW IT Faculty and runs The Knowledge Base, a consultancy dedicated to helping practitioners make effective use of technology. He is also the author of AccountingWEB's Office ProductivITy Kit and '100 Microsoft Office Time-saving Tips'. For more information, visit the The Knowledge Base website. AccountingWEB members can also access his back catalogue and IT Clinic online email support via the Office ProductivITy service.

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By listerramjet
24th Mar 2006 12:52

synergy!
why not combine the review of practice management with document management - many suppliers will do both, often in a quite integrated fashion. Perhaps the concept of integration would be of more interest to an incumbent IRIS user?

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