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May The Technology Be With You

09 January 2002 / Allison Plager
Issue: 3839 / Categories:

ALLISON PLAGER peruses a recent survey of information technology usage in accountancy practices.

ALLISON PLAGER peruses a recent survey of information technology usage in accountancy practices.

Accountants have traditionally been rather slow to embrace new technology. They are seemingly too attached to their pens, paper and calculators to be enticed to surrender them too easily. However, this is changing. The Information Technology Faculty of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales recently carried out its annual second research report 'IT Usage In Accountancy Practices' and this shows that overall software and the Internet are becoming increasingly important tools for accountants.

Detailed information was obtained from over 760 practices country-wide ranging in size from sole practitioner to big five firm for the purposes of the survey.

General practice

The supremacy of Microsoft at the operating level and for word processing is almost total. Microsoft Windows is used by 98 per cent of respondents. 76 per cent use Windows 95/98, 21 per cent use Windows NT/2000 and one per cent are still using Windows 3.1. Another one per cent of practices use Apple Mackintosh. Similarly, Microsoft Office is used by most firms (88 per cent) of all sizes and in all areas. Another ten per cent use Microsoft Works, eight per cent use Lotus Smartsuite, and three per cent use Wordperfect.

The source of information technology support is, according to the report, 'directly affected by size of practice (number of offices) with single office practices being more likely to outsource, and larger offices more likely to have their own information technology staff'. The figures certainly bear this out, with 79 per cent of firms with over 20 offices having in-house support, compared with only 31 per cent of one office firms. 37 per cent of one office firms have no formal support at all.

Moving into the electronic world

For many people, communication by e-mail is the norm, and they can hardly operate without it, as witness the effect of malevolent e-mail viruses which recently threatened to bring businesses globally to their knees. The report showed that 33 per cent of practices had internal e-mail systems, although not surprisingly this occurs mostly in firms with six or more offices. The picture for external e-mail is different, however – with 91 per cent of practices of all sizes having access to it, (rising from 86 per cent in 2000) and, in 54 per cent of those practices, all staff may use it. Again, it is the largest firms which have the highest usage of external e-mail, but the picture seems more evenly spread.

Internet access is taken for granted by many employees, and the report showed that 87 per cent of firms have Internet access, although only 25 per cent found the Internet generally 'very important to the smooth running of the practice'.

The use of the Internet for research and information gathering has increased slightly from the 2000 survey, with 93 per cent using the Internet for these reasons (90 per cent in 2000). 92 per cent of these users claimed to find the Internet very or quite useful for research, and seven per cent claimed to find it of no use at all.

Personal tax

The report also asked firms about their specific software, covering for instance, performance, reliability, ease of use, and quality of service and support. Overall, personal tax software was used by 64 per cent of respondents, not perhaps as high as might be expected, with 61 per cent of one office practices likely to use it, compared to 73 to 80 per cent of larger practices.

The most used software package at 26 per cent was Iris, followed by Sage Personal Tax at 17 per cent, PTP 14 per cent, Solution 6's PerTax with ten per cent, and Taxpoint with seven per cent. It should be emphasised that this is based purely on information provided by the respondents to this particular survey, the providers themselves were not asked to divulge details of numbers of users, and therefore, while the information is interesting, it is not a definitive view of the market.

Firms were asked about their reasons for choosing specific packages, and the most common reason given was reasonable price (21 per cent), followed by ease of use (18 per cent). The integration factor also proved important with this being given as a main reason by 15 per cent of respondents. Other reasons in order of popularity were best suited, takeover, used before, recommended, reliable, inherited, used by clients.

Corporate tax

Corporate tax packages were less widely used than personal tax packages, with only 33 per cent of respondents using such software. Two of the big names of corporation tax software, such as Andersen's Abacus and Tax Computer Systems Ltd, did not figure at all in the IT Faculty report. The software used by most respondents who used corporate tax software was Iris Business Tax (41 per cent), then Sage Taxsoft with 19 per cent and PTP with 14 per cent. Integration was a key factor for 21 per cent of respondents, and partly explains the popularity of Iris.

What is the point?

Some may be tempted to look at the IT Faculty survey and dismiss it as having some merit, but essentially not being representative of the profession as a whole. However, while this is true to some extent, it is virtually the only survey of its kind, and it does give some indication of the use made by the profession of information technology. For instance, the use of e-mail and the Internet is rising. It would be interesting to know why smaller practices use the Internet less, although one would surmise that cost is an important factor. With regard to e-mail, this is evidently seen as an important means of communication externally, although less so internally.

It is surprising that quite a few practices still do not use personal tax software. The reasons for not using such software are not given, but they are likely to be because there are too few relevant clients to merit its purchase, or that some practitioners simply prefer to do tax returns manually.

Overall, the paperless office continues to be a distant target, and is probably one that for many people is not particularly desirable. Clearly, despite the unquestioning enthusiasm of official departments, not all accountants regard the computer and electronic communication as the panacea to all their problems.

Issue: 3839 / Categories:
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