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Hey, hey, you, you, get onto my cloud

29th Sep 2010
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Was last week’s IT Faculty Cloud Computing conference a missed opportunity, as Richard Messik claimed? Or was it an important step for the profession towards understanding web-based applications. Julian Shaw sifts through the evidence.

ICAEW IT Faculty’s inaugural Cloud Computing conference at Moorgate Place on 25 September set out to give accountants a more in depth understanding of cloud computing and the impact it may have on their practice or business. But did it succeed?

From the conversations, blogs and comments that resulted, the conference certainly made an impact. Just putting on the event drew praise from Gary Turner of Xero and feedback (PPT file download) published by the IT Faculty’s Richard Anning, Head showed an 83% satisfaction rating. (Full results can be seen here

What attendees learned
The aim of the conference was to educate the delegates.  Before the conference only 54% of respondents understood the term “cloud”; most of the other half had a limited understanding, with over 10% having no understanding at all. Afterwards, levels of understanding had increased to 87%, so on that score the event was a resounding success.

The IT Faculty’s feedback also indicated that 60% of respondents (60%) were “more likely to consider moving to the cloud” after the event. The survey also asked whether finance had been “one of the laggards of Cloud computing adoption”; nearly half the respondents thought so.

By attending the conference, delegates showed an interest in Cloud computing, but the feedback highlights the continuing need for more education around the subject.

Cloud computing discussion group leader Chris Challis [challisc] of Camwells pointed out that cloud-based CRM systems were taking off more quickly because CRM users are more likely to have a geographical spread. “Anytime, anywhere” functionality is a bigger bonus for a mobile sales force.

But some of the most useful points came from users themselves in a panel discussion. The three members were from businesses of varying size: John  O'Nolan (Sole Trader, FreeAgent user); Rex Harrison (COO i-solutions Global NetSuite user); and Gary White (CEO, White Springs FinancialForce user).

They were refreshingly candid in their answers. Their comments can be summarised:

1.    Risk

Disaster recovery, data back-ups, vendor lock-in and support are all commonly quoted as potential drawbacks to cloud systems. The panel consensus was, yes, they are things to consider but that they would be regardless of the software platform chosen. Vendors were seen to have worked hard to address the issues, but the panel recognised that things were by no means perfect yet.

2.    Horses for courses
The panellists agreed there was such a variety of software on the market that there was something for everyone. Although a degree of caution was advised and good planning is essential, they thought that implementing a cloud system should be viewed in the same way as any traditional software.

3.    Implementation, customisation and training
The “horses for courses” principle was reflected in the way the panel viewed moving to the cloud. They agreed it was relatively painless, but for different reasons. One of the main benefits of cloud systems was the easy way things can customised very easily, such as the upcoming VAT rate changes on 4 January 2011. Also, moving from a legacy system to a cloud system was fairly straightforward as they all work on the same underlying principles.

Users don't care about how the software works
The panellists’ comments led to another discussion: “How do we teach the consumer?”

Richard Messik’s argument is that more needs to be done to educate accountants about what the cloud brings rather than how it brings it. In his blog he uses the analogy of driving a car. The driver is not interested in the workings of the engine, rather the fact that it makes the car go.

The counter argument is that people have an intrinsic need to understand the mechanism of something before they can be completely comfortable with it. We’ve grown used to the internal combustion engine over the past hundred years, and that's why we don't really care how it works. We just know it does.

Matt Holmes from Liquid Accounts took the transport metaphor in another direction. Just as railways overtook canals for moving freight, he argued that Cloud systems were a wholly new way of working.

As Bryan Richter of Mamut pointed out, the success of an event should be determined by the attendees. In spite of the counter points raised, enlightening a room full of 100 accountants about Cloud Computing has to be counted as a success. The conference should also have taught vendors many things about the way they and their software is perceived. Those lessons should be picked up for future events.

Further reading
IT Faculty conference report
ICAEW Cloud conference - a missed opportunity? - Richard Messik's blog
Accman Pro video  (follow link for more clips)
Cloud Computing Today - Google Docs presentation by Liquid Accounts founder and BASDA Cloud SIG chairman Matt Holmes
Cloud computing discussion group - what vendors thought of the event


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