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Accountants battle software integration frustration

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While the dream for accountants may be separate integrated apps synchronised with each other, sluicing data around the organisation and removing the need for manual keying or rekeying, the reality for firms at the accounting coalface is somewhat different.

19th Oct 2023
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‘Integration’ is a tricky term to define, particularly from an accounting software perspective. When attempting to combine software tools from different vendors, this seemingly simple term takes on a multitude of different meanings and nuances.

In the golden age of desktop computing, an integration was often as simple as downloading a CSV file from one program, rejigging the format a bit and then uploading it to another. But is that what the modern accounting professional really thinks of as integration in 2023?

“An integration is having a talking point between A and B,” said Rebecca Williams, founder of accounting and bookkeeping firm Eccounting Made Easy. “A is the initial data the client provides – data in, say QuickBooks or earlier in the data flow like a receipt captured in Dext – and B is the end goal, financial reporting, year end or a VAT return.”

For John Toon, tech advisory lead at Beever and Struthers, an integration is “something where the data passes, at least one way, between products without the user having to do anything with that data or file. An export/import isn't an integration”.

Integration dream meets reality at the accounting coalface

While the dream for accountants may be a plethora of apps perfectly in sync with each other, sluicing data around the organisation and removing the need for manual keying or rekeying, the reality for firms at the accounting coalface is something quite different.

“With over two decades of experience, I've seen this recurring trend of firms grappling with software subscriptions and integration issues,” commented QX Global Group’s senior vice president CA Niraj Mehta.

ICAEW’s recent Mastering Mid-Tier Technology report also flagged integration as the second biggest challenge for firms in terms of adopting new specialised software.

“A lot of the systems out there just aren’t as integrated or streamlined as you’d hope,” said Rebecca Williams. “There are times when a lot of integrations fall down, for example when a receipt has multiple line items and the app doesn’t have the integration to split it, or when a system can’t distinguish between a zero-rated VAT invoice and outside the scope or reverse charge for example. Therefore it still requires the accountant to make a manual intervention and means we cannot fully rely on integration as a result.

"In an ideal world we would want our app stack to be as integrated as possible, but if there’s a potential error or breakage then it adds additional manual time to the whole process.”

API = Apps Please Integrate?

Widely touted as a fix to accountants’ integration issues are application programming interfaces or APIs. These virtual data pipes allow one system to talk to another and exchange information.

By connecting to an accounting system’s API, an app partner can plug in their expertise to carry out common accounting tasks such as invoice chasing and cashflow forecasting that are not handled by the core program. These developers, often listed on app stores provided by the cloud accounting platform, use APIs to pull in data such as the chart of accounts or transactional data, as well as using a two-way integration to publish their own data directly to the core platforms.

In many cases, these connections work well, as highlighted in a recent forum post on AccountingWEB to accompany this article, and accountants have found efficiencies in many different areas, from onboarding and practice management to working papers and accounts production. 

However, not all APIs are created equal, and as such they’re not yet the catch-all solution to accountants’ integration issues. APIs are expensive to build and maintain, older accounting tools used in the industry struggle to build them, and there can be an imbalance in power when it comes to larger software players integrating with smaller ones.

“A lot of the accounting systems out there are built pre-API and don't have one or a very poor one,” said Lars Nielsen, co-founder of document automation system DeckAutomation 

“We are trying to integrate our software to a range of systems, but sometimes have to give up as their API doesn't support our functionalities and we can't automate to the extent we want.”

“Many of the smaller vendors looking to grow by offering time-saving features see integration as a win-win situation for all,” said Gareth Salomon, chartered accountant and founder of data management tool Xenon Connect. “Of course, the smaller vendors have very little power. If the larger vendor doesn’t want to play ball for whatever reason, then all the smaller vendor can do is ask their customers to lobby the other vendor to add a bit of weight to the request.”

And what happens when one of the integrated software tools makes a change, the link drops out or the vendors decide to ‘consciously uncouple’ their data sync, as Digita and Xero did back in May, forcing users back onto CSVs?

Can we fix it?

There are a number of possible avenues the wider industry could go down to smooth down the bumps on the accounting integration highway, ranging from the regulatory to the robotic.

In a similar way to the UK’s Open Banking standards, some industry insiders are lobbying for ‘open apping’ – a common set of standards and open APIs for accounting platforms that must be built and maintained to allow better integrations for all. While this is a nice idea in theory, and would undoubtedly boost firm productivity, whether the regulatory and industry appetite (and the technical understanding in Whitehall) to thrash out such a set of rules exists at this stage is debatable.

As one might expect, the big players in the accounting industry have a solution – use their products for everything. The likes of IRIS, Sage, Xero, QuickBooks and Bright have all been building, assembling and integrating a raft of products intended to encourage their customers to use their services as much as possible.

While this may be a good remedy for satisfied customers on the hunt for efficiencies, it doesn’t cover all bases for all firms. There isn’t a software on the market that runs the full gamut of tasks performed by accountants, and for a variety of reasons, many firms are unable or unwilling to put all their eggs in one software basket.

But it may be that a tech solution can be found to fix a tech problem. Jeremy Hyman, whose consulting firm offers advice to accountants on data architecture and integration, believes the future of integration could well be found in data warehousing. 

“This is one place where all accounting firm data is stored,” said Hyman. “Where different apps can feed in or scoop out data and use it when they need it. It’s hub and spoke rather than peer-to-peer and doesn’t have that spaghetti of integration.”

As industry commentator Mark Lee pointed out, inadequate software integration has been a commonly expressed frustration by accountants for many years and is likely to remain one for years to come. However, despite the occasional notes of despondency, hard-won efficiencies have been gleaned along the way and hopefully, next time the discussion rolls around there will be more progress to report alongside the inevitable glitches.

Replies (13)

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Mark
By MarkRyan
19th Oct 2023 10:56

The CynareLink database is an aggregator and warehouse for information from a large variety of systems, including modern systems with APIs, moribund systems that were written before the API was invented, Microsoft 365, HMRC and Companies House

All your validated data in a single location - ready for integration, automation and reporting

Thousands of Users

...but I'm possibly biased - I'm the CEO

Mark Ryan
Cynare.com

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By HLB
19th Oct 2023 10:58

My son's business has integrations between Woocommerce and QBO and also Amazon and QBO. He sells his product internationally and uses Avalara Apps to deal with taxes.

None of the Apps put the UK Vat in the correct place in QBO. They identify the VAT and enter it in a separate nominal account for each but this does not populate the UK Vat Return. Manual intervention is needed to get the numbers on the VAT Return. The App providers are USA based and although we have had Zoom meetings with them to try and resolve the position no solutions have been forthcoming. This is hardly MTD.
If anyone knows of Apps that will do the job please let me know.

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Replying to HLB:
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By Self-Employed and Happy
19th Oct 2023 11:00

I'm pretty sure he needs Link my Books

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Replying to HLB:
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By unclejoe
19th Oct 2023 12:24

Years ago (it seems like a lifetime) I was working for the European subsidiary of a major US company. The US wanted to streamline accounting and mandated that we had to use their in-house accounting system. The trouble was, it could not handle VAT. The US bosses did not know what VAT was and asked for an explanation. When we explained they said "Simple, it is obviously the same as the US sales tax - just treat it as we do."

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By johnjenkins
19th Oct 2023 10:59

Tom, you seem to be getting right into this techno stuff with all your articles. (I know you're a techno buff)
You are really going to have to wait until all us golden oldies are gone before the "techno UAP's" take over.

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By Self-Employed and Happy
19th Oct 2023 11:06

The problem people are going to have is that softwares won't want to integrate with one another because they are building their own versions of the things we want to integrate.

Example.

I use Brightpay for payroll, absolutely love it.

I can link QBO to each client on Brightpay, I can press the export by Journal button and it journals the information into QBO, but I have to do this exact same process for every single client, when a batch journal button would take a minute to work instead of me having to client into each client and do the export each month which can take 30-40 minutes.

The softwares want to be helpful but not so helpful that you rely on just taking a bit of their offering, QBO payroll for example is more expensive but will obviously automatically do that.

QBO are bringing out a Bureau payroll soon but having spoken to them I believe this will still be priced per employee not a one off Bureau cost.

We are getting to the stage where once they all have Companies House + iXBRL functionality you are going to have to pick your poison and go "all in" on your preferred one (regardless if some aspects of the offering aren't as strong as others), that is the only way I see we will get the benefits of efficiency.

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image of Paul Sparkes
By Paul Sparkes
19th Oct 2023 11:10

Great article, nobody should be rekeying data from one system to another in 2023.

Open Public APIs, which give IT teams the ability to integrate any two systems, were a big step forward – but there’s an even bigger leap happening with iPaaS (integrated platform as a service).

With iPaaS, we get “no/low code” integration – the ability to connect with a choice of thousands of applications, without the need for development work. With iplicit, iPaaS will enable users to integrate with any of the 6,000+ applications offered by Zapier, for example.

https://www.iplicit.com/blog/iplicit-is-now-easily-linked-with-thousands...

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Morph
By kevinringer
19th Oct 2023 11:55

We used to use Viztopia for accounts and PTP for tax. They integrated: no need to re-key data. CCH replaced Viztopia with CCH accounts and now there is no integration. I've spoken to both CCH and PTP about this, but neither consider it their problem. Why is it that technology worked much better in 1999 than it does in 2023?

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By Swimmingagainstthe Tide
19th Oct 2023 16:09

Historically we have always bought in what we thought was the best software for the job and re-keyed where necessary. As such we have several software packages all of which do a good job. Happy days.

However, the trend now seems to be to offer integration across the systems or for each software developer to offer more and more services and try to get you to sign up to the extra functionality (at a cost). Both of these make sense, but if only they work.

We set up an integration between our own company bookkeeping software and our practice management software but we recently had to deal with a glitch where the output from the practice management software deleted 300 invoices from the bookeeping software. The bookeeping software supplier was not interested in the problem whatsoever and the practice manageent people spent three to four weeks to acknowledge an issue. We had to spend many hours re-entering the invoices and then reallocating payments (no backups with cloud accounting). Dealing with the interface between two software giants is a recipe for disaster as each just blames the other. We have turned off the integration.

On the other strand we had sales phone calls in the last couple of weeks as follows. Our bookkeeping software provider trying to sell us payroll bureau add ons. Our document management system provider trying to sell us work flow management add ons. Our practice management software provider trying to sell us bookkeeping software and AML software.

I feel like I have lost the point I was trying to make but it is exhausting, I just want to be left alone with a set of software packages that do a really good job!

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Replying to BSSRoberts:
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By moneymanager
19th Oct 2023 23:04

Paper, pen, typewriter, analogue will survive the electromagnetic storm and I wouldn't trust the cloud even if I could nail it down.

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Replying to BSSRoberts:
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By johnjenkins
20th Oct 2023 09:40

I said this many moons ago about hype and how marketing has no place in our profession. I remember having a fierce battle with Bob and Mark.
So let me make it quite clear to all you marketing gurus out there and HMRC (MTD). Our profession will move forward at a pace it suits and is best for our clients and business overall. This "you must have" era has to stop.

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Replying to johnjenkins:
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By Ammie
24th Oct 2023 10:12

There is a place for extensive software integration, largely pushed by the software providers, and at the moment it is only of use for larger concerns with internal professional support.

Try convincing a typical micro business, the resulting mess will force a re-think.

Less keying is welcoming, but not if I have to spend twice as long with alternative corrective keying.

Most micros will never move to such integration and will only just get to the MTD changes. We are a few generations away from the dream of full integration so software providers need to sit down and cool off the excessive marketing.

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By Fred Hoad
19th Oct 2023 16:39

I think what it boils down to is the trade offs between cost and level of integration (more integrated software often costs more but saves leg work) and being able to trust the software to integrate whilst also being comfortable with using that software (some software might be hard to use but is integrated where some software is harder to use but is more integrated). Training and knowledge is key. And you may have to make the time for that.

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