Accounting Professionals, Software as Service, and DIY

Joanie Mann Bunny Feet

The question begs to be asked “how did we get here?” (with “here” being the current state of information technology and the accounting industry). There is confusion in the market; there is still significant debate as to the underlying value of Internet technologies and online application services, and the “managed enterprise approach” has yet to return the benefit and cost-efficiency that is expected.

The accounting industry is experiencing continued change, and understanding the progression of events and technology developments can provide significant insight into where the industry is today and where it will likely be tomorrow. Most professional accounting firms recognize the need to implement technology and solutions that will help the firm and its clients compete in today’s market. Understanding the options available and imperatives that drive the need is key to making the right choices

Technology to manage general business and financial processes has evolved tremendously in the past 20 years, and history clearly reveals that those who have successfully adopted such technologies have done so in stages. Bridge technologies and services (which I fondly refer to as “tweeners”, like cloud hosting of legacy applications) provide a means for safe and low-risk adoption of online working models and managed IT services.

Application hosting solutions have achieved a high level of acceptance in the market, and these are the services that have assisted in garnering online users for the purely Web-based (SaaS and cloud) applications. Providers delivering their “legacy” applications using terminal servers, Quest, Citrix and similar technologies offer the full capability of the Windows application along with the rich Windows interface, as well as the benefits of ASP service and Internet accessibility similar to the Web- app (e.g., the “software as a service” model). This familiarity in functionality and presentation has made adoption of hosted deliveries of these applications a harmless and often seamless transition from localized IT models.

Once a business has adjusted to working online and outsourcing the management of the general IT service, taking the step towards a “true” SaaS solution is much less of a step.

However, trends in the software industry indicate that the concept of “software as a service” has been taken several steps beyond simply providing online access to applications, and are offering outsourced support and finished product deliverables rather than just the software application. For example – an accounting professional may obtain a “finished client tax return” rather than simply purchasing the tax preparation software.

For many emerging Web-based applications, this is the positioning and model which is selected to bolster adoption of the solution.  There has been a great deal of success in offering business users access to a solution, and then providing the actual business service behind it as users find it easier and more efficient than doing the work themselves. This activity has focused on the direct customer and consuming market, where business applications are not sold separately, but as a function of getting the business process facilitated. CRM and helpdesk services are frequently offered this way, as are HR administration and payroll services. The technology has matured to a point where the outsourcer can facilitate the internal business process on behalf of a business fairly transparently, including business bookkeeping and accounting.

All of this serves to devalue the knowledge required to perform the business and accounting processes. There is a belief that has been marketed very well to the small business sector – “if you can write a check, then you can do your own books”. This concept has not proven as realistic as many would choose to believe. But it earned – and continues to earn –  market share. With the trend in software becoming the transparent outsourcing of the processes, is the consuming market likely to recognize the expertise required to manage the outcome?  Retail providers of accounting, tax preparation, and other services (H&R Block, as an example) have quite successfully marketed against the need for businesses to engage with a skilled credentialed professional.  Accounting professionals who do not view this as a threat to their value are simply not paying attention.

Today’s accounting professional must address the realities of Internet technologies, outsourcing, and retail or consumer-direct competition, and the potential impact it will have on the businesses (the client business as well as the professional practice). Recognizing that accountants (by trade) are not typically technologists, it is important to understand that involvement with the financial processes causes a necessary level of involvement with the technology, as well. Professionals who understand and embrace the appropriate use of technology and outsource models are the professionals who will continue to demonstrate their value and expertise to their client businesses and to the market.

With the industry generally moving towards an online, enabling model, those who do not embrace such technologies will rapidly find themselves attempting to compete. As the trend continues to devalue the backoffice processes by essentially hiding them from the consumer (the client business), the position of the accounting services provider is also devalued.

By embracing the technology/enabling model now, the professional service organization positions itself to function as seamlessly with the market as the online service. A clear example of such activity is the emergence of free e-filing of tax returns and the prevalence of low-cost do-it-yourself business bookkeeping and accounting solutions online. Reports indicate that there continues to be a marked decrease in the number of returns prepared by professional organizations as compared to the significant increase in volumes of online do-it-yourself return processing. This has clearly devalued the tax preparation service in the eyes of the consuming market, bringing it down to a level where price is the sole differentiation.

The solution is to fully “enable” the professional services organization, and provide the foundation for seamless delivery of services to the consumer. Once an online working model is adopted within the professional service organization, it gains the opportunity to change and reconstruct internal systems without concern for direct client impacts.

Just as the online application can render the computing platform irrelevant, so can the professional service delivery render the supporting applications irrelevant. This offers the professional service provider the flexibility and freedom to use or develop systems that create differentiation through the underlying process rather than forcing frequent change upon the client.

Make Sense?

Joanie Mann Bunny Feet

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About Joanie Mann

Joanie Mann is a recognized authority in the areas of ISV cloud enablement and ASP service delivery, and consults with application and platform hosting companies worldwide. Her extensive work with accounting professionals worldwide has also positioned her as an expert consultant and adviser to professional practitioners seeking to leverage cloud accounting solutions, web-based applications and Internet technologies in their firms and with their clients. Author of Cloud Hosting Explained for Normal People (available on Amazon Kindle) Principal consultant at Cooper Mann Consulting CooperMann.com @JoanieMann on twitter
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