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

J

Have questions about hosting business applications (like QuickBooks)?Are you looking for help developing your IT-enabling model?  Need assistance convincing clients to use the cloud, or onboarding clients to cloud services?

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Cloud Computing Evolved: Disruptive Technology Goes Mainstream

jmbunnyfeetCloud Computing Evolved: Disruptive Technology Goes Mainstream

A 2010 information technology report by IDC (International Data Corporation, a global provider of market intelligence) provided a few interesting predictions for Information Technology in these changing times.  Not surprisingly, many of the predictions centered around the same “ingredients of IT industry transformation” which were identified in past years as being disruptive technologies including cloud computing, mobile devices and applications, wireless broadband, virtualized infrastructure, social networking, and smart devices being among those listed.  The subsequent 2011 report suggested a continuing trend of spending and innovation in cloud technologies and mobile computing and in collecting and analyzing the huge volumes of data being generated.  It is clear that cloud computing is evolving from being disruptive technology to mainstream IT.

Everyone must by now recognize the significant growth in use of online and mobile applications and services.  If you haven’t noticed that just about everyone has a smart phone or tablet computer, then you’ve got your head buried deep in the sand.  What this clearly indicates, and IDC supported the position with quantifiable evidence, is that the “disruptive technologies” of yesterday have transitioned from early adoption to mainstream adoption.   This means that use of these technologies had pushed “well beyond” the first 10 to 15% of the market through 2010, and that customers were ready to integrate these new solutions as core parts of their overall IT strategy.

If you don’t believe that cloud computing, virtualization, and mobile access are becoming (have become?) mainstream, consider the staggering number and variety of mobile devices and networks available today.  The adoption of these devices is driven by the availability of broadband wireless service, and their use is fueled by applications offering “social business” and “pervasive analytics”.  No longer limited as a voice communications device, the mobile phone has now become the mobile workstation, capable of supporting a wide variety of business and personal interactions and functions intended to help users generate and analyze “unprecedented volumes of information” – and the 2011 report indicates that mobile computing is continuing to fuel the trend.

“Mobility wins” will be the top theme of the year as mobile devices outship PCs by more than 2 to 1 and generate more revenue than PCs for the first time. 85 billion mobile apps will be downloaded, and mobile data network spending will exceed fixed data network spending for the first time.

IDC’s 2010 report placed an interesting focus on the impact of this new era of IT, believing that it would be a launchpad for  the creation of “intelligent industry” with an IT-enabled “intelligent economy”.  This doesn’t apply only to those very large multinational corporations, like the IBM commercials about a smarter planet and the commercials where the box tells us where it (and the delivery truck) is.  This new-found intelligence would allow businesses of all sizes to offer better and more customized services locally while dramatically expanding their market reach beyond geographic boundaries, and positioning themselves for accelerated growth.

As the number of intelligent communicating devices on the network will outnumber “traditional computing” devices by almost 2 to 1, the way people think about interacting with each other, and with devices on the network, will change. Look for the use of social networking to follow not just people but smart things.”

Business owners who find a way to leverage this new capability through innovative applications of cloud computing and mobile device access will almost certainly find that their businesses are better suited to addressing the needs of their current market, but are also poised to take advantage of emerging opportunities in emerging markets as well.

In 2010 IDC predicted that by 2012 we would begin to see the “slow death” of cloud computing – the term, not the technology model.  Even though cloud computing is one of the hottest buzzwords in tech today, the model is becoming mainstream to the point where it is no longer considered a bleeding-edge method of computing requiring its own descriptive name. While IDC may have been a bit off in terms of forecasting the slow death of “cloud” terminology, their finding that the evolution of cloud computing models is rapidly progressing from disruptive to mainstream appears to be spot on.

Joanie Mann Bunny FeetMake Sense?
J

updated from original post in 2010