Most accountants unable to help clients take advantage of technology opportunities

Results of a survey conducted by our sister site, AccountingWEB co.uk, and the British National B2B Centre conducted in the autumn of 2007 show that more than three-quarters of respondents held positive views of e-business, but only 8 percent of them advised clients on e-business strategies. Another 9 percent had invested time and effort, but were disappointed with the returns and 8 percent said e-business was not core to their activities.

While in spirit accountants might like to get involved with e-business, the reality of their current knowledge and workload means that only a small minority are able to help clients take advantage of new technology opportunities.

The AccountingWEB/National B2B Centre study established that lack of knowledge was the biggest barrier holding accountants back from exploring e-business opportunities. Nor were they helped by pressure on their time and resources.

Accountants reported little demand from clients for e-business advice, for a variety of reasons. Some clients were not computer literate, or were difficult to convince of the returns and benefits of embracing e-commerce. A couple of respondents noted a perception that accountants lacked credibility on technology issues, typified by the comment, "My business clients tend to be more expert on IT systems than I am."

Experiences with e-business

Accountants are not unfamiliar with the underlying technologies. Nearly half the respondents (45 percent) had expertise in maintaining their firm's website, while 27 percent had helped to plan and manage website developments and 34 percent were familiar with electronic invoicing and payments.

Online collaboration was something that 29 percent of the respondents were doing, and 27 percent had experience of commercial trading on eBay or other sites. But only 6 percent of respondents had first-hand experience of operating an in-house web store and 11 percent professed that they had no experience of e-commerce.

While only 8 percent of respondents offered e-business advice to clients, 22 percent said they would like to do so, but lacked the skills, capacity or confidence to follow through.

Most of these aspiring e-business advisers were senior figures within their firms, and three-quarters had experience helping clients select software. Just under half of them resold software and 30 percent had experience implementing it. In spite of their hands-on experiences, lack of knowledge remained the main barrier to advising clients. This could be a sign that they know their professional limits and appreciate the complexities involved - or could it be a lack of confidence?

AccountingWEB contributor and technology trainer Simon Hurst commented, "The survey makes rather depressing reading. If it really is the case that 75 percent of respondents held positive views of e-business yet only 8 percent advised clients on e-business strategies, then surely there is both a substantial source of additional income going unexploited, and a worrying failure to provide businesses with appropriate guidance in a key area."

Hurst was also concerned that the results pointed towards a weak spot in the profession's qualification systems and continuing development programs, which were not adequately equipping accountants to deal with a crucial aspect of modern business. "If the respondents who noted the perception among clients that accountants lacked credibility on technology issues, then the professional institutes should really take notice. I wonder what the reaction would be if a survey suggested that accountants lacked credibility on tax matters?"

Where next?

Reviewing the findings, National B2B Centre director Martin King-Turner said the centre was keen to explore ways in which it could help equip the accountancy profession to support their clients' e-business needs through education, seminars and networking meetings.

To follow-up the report, King-Turner posed several questions for AccountingWEB members:

  • Do these findings reflect your experiences?

  • Are there other constraints besides lack of knowledge, time and capacity that hold you back from expanding into e-business consultancy? What would help you overcome these obstacles?

  • Have you used e-business technologies to enhance your own firm's services? Would any of these techniques transfer successfully to your clients?

  • Would an e-business website combined with newswire alerts cater for your e-business information needs? Or would you be willing to pursue your interest more actively through an e-business special interest group?

    The full AccountingWEB/National B2B Centre e-business survey is available for free from the Download Library. Feel free to add your observations and comments using the Post a Comment button below.

    By John Stokdyk, for our sister site, AccountingWEB.co.uk

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