How to Use the Right Tools: The Rise of the Online Accountant
One of the changes I’ve noticed this year on both sides of the Atlantic is the way that cloud computing has gone from being a novelty to a basic part of working life for so many accountants.
That’s not to say the desktop has had its day. Excel is still too deeply embedded in the hearts of most accountants for them to leave their PCs behind. But even the beloved spreadsheet is mutating into an online beast.
Accountants are contradictory creatures when it comes to technology. Many of the ones I meet are proud to identify themselves as geeks who enthusiastically embrace the latest tools and mobile devices. But when it comes to their working lives, they’re more cautious about security implications, data integrity, and disruptive changes.
Depending on your point of view, there are two perspectives on how cloud accounting has evolved within the profession. On AccountingWEB.com’s sister site in the UK, nearly 50 percent of our members are now supporting clients on a cloud accounting system. When the wider business population is taken into account (including SMEs and accountants who don’t “get” the internet), the proportion is lower - about 4-5 percent, according to figures from Intuit’s UK manager Rich Preece. So the naysayers have good reason to claim that the cloud is still mainly hype.
But the speed of the transition and the impact on the wider profession tells a different story. Online tools are everywhere: from the smartphone in your pocket or purse that you use for email, shopping, banking, and social networking, to all the web applications you connect to for personal organization, storage, and entertainment.
All these technology trends came into focus for me at Caesars Palace in November. The AccountingWEB posse rode into Las Vegas for the Sleeter Group’s Solutions 14 conference and spent three days with around 1,000 other practitioners, consultants, developers, and commentators. Everybody there enthusiastically embraced web technology as a means to becoming trusted business advisors for their clients.
The mass migration of accountants from desk-bound compliance drones to mobile, connected advisors is a work in progress. The Sleeter network is made up mainly of pioneering practitioners. Not everyone in the profession is so ready to abandon the systems and controls they trained on. And despite the efforts of many, many accounting software visionaries, all those tax returns don’t complete, check and file themselves yet.
Accounting technology lecturer Brian Tankersley gave a great talk in Las Vegas about online collaboration tools that delved a little deeper into the grey areas surrounding web tools such as Google Apps, OneDrive, and Dropbox.
Tankersley applies some pretty tough standards, specifically HIPAA, the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act protocol, which he uses as a benchmark for data confidentiality.
“I’m not saying I’m not confident of DropBox’s security,” he said. “But as part of my fiduciary duty, it’s not my right to put somebody else’s data there. I can’t waive their privacy rights for them.” Evernote, a very useful web research and cataloging tool, got the same treatment: “I don’t put anybody’s Social Security number in there, because I’m paranoid.”
But it’s getting increasingly difficult to quarantine the workplace from these online facilities and many of them have already infiltrated mainstream practices. And the accountants I’ve been talking to this year aren’t so uptight about embracing them. They’re much more interested in connecting their online accounting systems to web portals and other tools to create a space where they can collaborate directly with their clients. These cloud pioneers also seem to be the ones who have moved farthest from pure compliance to advisory work.
Since the Solutions 14 conference was at Caesars Palace, and I was taping a series of interviews, I started channeling Howard Cosell and pumping everyone for their views on the big accounting showdown between QuickBooks Online in the green corner and Xero in the turquoise corner. Sage was ringside, too, and turned a few heads with a nifty looking, if expensive, KPI dashboard tool.
At least Xero North America president Jamie Sutherland was willing to play along. “There’s no champion yet,” he told me, adding, “For us it’s more like Ultimate Fighter. We’ve changed the rules of the game.”
Sleeter Group director of educational projects Deborah Pembrook struck a more conciliatory, collaborative tone: “We view it much more like a flash mob - where we had all these developers working in sync. Since we’re in Las Vegas, it’s more like a dance.”
She has a point. The big, global fight among QuickBooks, Xero, and Sage is going to be epic, but it isn’t where the action is. The real buzz is growing around all the associated programs that tie into these online accounting engines - with expenses management tools such as ReceiptBank and Expensify, and KPI dashboards like Spotlight and Fathom, leading the way.
Fathom founder David Watson described the accounting cloud as an ecosystem of connected apps. Savvy accountants are learning how to diagnose the data blockages within their clients’ business processes and prescribing combinations of cloud applications that cure the bottlenecks and open up new efficiencies and business opportunities.
In a follow-up article summarizing an “unconference” session Visualizing the Next Generation Accounting Firm at the Las Vegas event, Donny Shimamoto commented: “This virtual infrastructure allows the flow of data among systems supporting both clients’ and the firm’s operations, allowing accountants to be a more integrated part of their clients’ businesses. Easier access to clients’ data also allows the accountant to focus on ‘the thinking’—analysis and providing insights—rather than ‘the work’—data collection and data entry.”
Leaving Las Vegas, I didn’t feel that anyone had landed a knockout blow, but came away with a feeling that I had caught a glimpse of how the profession is changing. You may have reasons not to follow the stampede, but if you’re in it for the long haul the time may have come to start looking at how you become an online accountant, too.
AccountingWEB's Head of Insight has been with the site since 1999 and likes to spend his time studying accountants’ technology habits. When not nerding out, you can find him exploring obscure indie music and searching for the perfect organic sourdough loaf from his base in Brighton, UK.