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Five things to think about when considering your IT options

When you are starting up in practice it is important that you are aware of the options to consider. Often the first steps are the most difficult ones. Our Setting up in practice pages will help by pointing you in the direction of answers to some key questions.

If you have worked in business, or for another practice, IT has always been ’just there’ and everything has been provided – support, hardware, software, consumables etc. Going it alone suddenly shifts the burden. But don’t look on IT as a ’necessary evil’; it’s a significant tool in your armoury for supplying products and services to clients.

Some things you will need to have just to comply with the norm, such as internet and online services. If you don’t have internet and don’t register for the range of online services, you won’t be able to perform even the most basic of tasks for a client.

But there are other advantages, and efficient use of IT can result in substantial increases in productivity. Properly used, IT can be a significant differentiating factor between firms, and it enables the IT literate to deliver better products and provide services much more efficiently.

To help focus your decisions on the IT infrastructure it’s essential that you have an idea of where your practice is now and where it is likely to be in the future.

See ICAEW IT Faculty’s IT for the small accounting practice: including practice start-ups for more information.

1. Choosing a computer system

Some practices use an integrated suite of services which are provided by a number of different computer providers. These provide for easy ‘one-key’ updating across all the software packages for example, where client addresses change.

These have the benefit of efficiency though the cost is greater. The alternative is to use separate systems to reduce the software cost. The saving can be greater as you have more clients (although conversely, if updating is done by a clerical assistant as you expand, it may become relatively cheaper than using your own time now).

Plan how systems will be relevant as you expand as their adaptability and the ease and cost of adding additional user licenses is important.

2. Are hard copies still relevant?

Some members still use hard-copy records to document the work performed as there may be certain situations where it remains cost-effective if the work is simple or the member’s preference is to use paper. So while there may be a move to IT solutions, there is also a place for paper.

3. Using the cloud

Some IT processes are hosted by an external supplier, rather than your own PC or laptop. The cloud provider provides the power, memory and storage to support these externally hosted systems and the software runs on hardware owned by the cloud provider. The user accesses the systems over the internet.

The IT Faculty provides a host of valuable information which will help you decide on which software and system is most appropriate for the services you will provide.

  • Cloud computing guide 
  • Online accounting software 
  • Dealing with internet security threats. 

Your decision will need to take account of the software your intended clients are likely to use and whether you prefer simple or more sophisticated computer software. For example, if you undertake audit work there are various packages which are computerised. However, some firms still find paper audit programmes more flexible and cost-effective while others strongly prefer the computerised versions.

Test your proposed system well before you commit to purchasing it and consider the complete cost, including user licenses, cost of software and hardware.

Using the cloud can help reduce your IT costs as up-front costs are lower and monthly costs are more able to be easily budgeted.

It can also be a powerful aid to ensure you can access your information from any IT device wherever you are. Depending on your intended client base this might be appealing. It can also be useful to market this on your website.

By using the cloud you can improve your profitability and flexibility of your own (and staff) working practices.

There are advantages for your client from using the cloud. They can also access information and will benefit from the back-up that your online systems have if they’re using the cloud themselves to post their records.

Online banking is an option provided with cloud systems. This can be a useful benefit to aid accounts production. But the method of updating bank data (directly or via periodic refreshing at the behest of the client) and liability for fraud (by employees of the cloud host or the bank) are issues worth discussing to protect your clients and your firm.

4. Scalability

We consider scalability when we are discussing niche markets (see Four areas to consider for commercial success, What is a niche market?). However, if you are going to benefit from this it’s worth considering it when choosing your software.

Is it going to be easy to benefit from scalability? What will happen when your practice expands? Will today’s IT solution be appropriate to future clients? What happens if the software you’re using is no longer supported (and how will you access it)?

5. IT security

It is imperative that you have appropriate virus protection software and that it is regularly updated. From a business perspective there are a number of critical issues to consider.

  • Understanding the risk facing you
  • Ensuring you have an appropriate policy
  • Educating staff
  • Ensuring you don’t become complacent in IT security
  • Not letting increased mobility destroy your IT security.

Ensure that passwords are regularly changed and can’t be guessed and are not written down. Wifi working should be carefully managed. And when you employ staff or use subcontractors, ensure that when they leave you prevent them retaining access. When you employ staff or sub-contractors, it is worth considering having a documented IT policy that they should adhere to.

Given the increasing dangers of theft of portable IT devices (laptops and mobile phones) encryption of sensitive information is important too. Where remote workers use their own computers to access your working systems, you need to manage the increased risk of virus infection.

If you are using cloud computer systems, ensure that whoever is responsible for the supply can clarify their security systems to ensure your confidential data is safe. The jurisdiction in which the information is held can be important to know, as well.

By following a number of basic steps, you can significantly improve your online security and help safeguard their most important assets and trading relationships. These steps are covered in the IT Faculty publication 10 Steps to cyber security for the smaller firm.