05/07/10

By Claire West

Brookson, one of the leading providers of accountancy and support services to self employed professionals, recently continued its series of roundtable discussions by facilitating a group of influential commentators to talk about the effect of accounting technology on the flexible workforce.

Chaired by Richard Anning, Head of the IT Faculty of ICAEW (Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales), the Brookson Technology Roundtable discussion explored current issues like 24/7 on-demand accounting information, mobile accessibility, compliance and the ease-of-use of multi-channel access to information.

Roundtable panel members included John Stokdyk, a well-known journalist currently editing the technology section of AccountingWeb.co.uk, technology writer Rachael Singh from Accountancy Age, Susie Hughes, editor of Shout99 (www.shout99.com/contractors/) a specialist website for contractors and freelancers, Marilyn Davidson, director of APSCo (www.apsco.org), the specialist trade body representing recruiters placing business professionals in both contract and permanent positions.

Other panel members were Martin Hesketh, managing director of Brookson, Lee Kingshott, information systems director of Brookson, and Matt Johnson, CEO of Web Technology Partner Mando Group.

Real-time accounting

Examining the use of technology and support services specifically available to self-employed professionals, Martin Hesketh commented from a financial information point-of-view: “Brookson has been in this marketplace in excess of 14 years now and know that accessibility of information is key — these individuals are looking for real-time accounting figures which are accessible through all common channels ― web, email, phone and smartphone, on a 24/7 basis. These are professionals that want — and need - to stay on top of their accounts, know their business position, how much tax they need to set aside and how much they can take out of their business. These individuals want technology and support services that are time-efficient.”

One ‘must-have’ that all panel members agreed on was ease-of-use. Susie Hughes made the point that contractors are very comfortable with technology compared to the average guy-in-the-street and they are happy to use a number of multiple applications but are also very time-poor and want to minimise the effort put into accounting and tax. Marilyn Davidson, director at APSCo, also added thoughts on what her members and their customers say they need from technology; “Users want consistency and reliability from their IT systems. They want what they expect to see, where and when they want to see it. Any technology has to meet these requirements, first and foremost.”

iPhone apps

Being technologically savvy, many self-employed professionals are ‘early adaptors’ of the latest IT — always on the look out for ways in which they can work smarter. While iPhone apps have been on the market for awhile now, Brookson’s information systems director, Lee Kingshott, responded to a question from John Stokdyk regarding the sophistication of its own app technology. Lee explained that accountancy experts for the self-employed professionals market such as Brookson has to provide forecasting, trending and management accounting functions for its customers at their fingertips.

Lee explained that in his experience, self-employed professionals expected to be able to see both high-level summary information ― viewing a real time statement of their financial situation ― as well as being able to drill down to a greater level of detail and view individual invoices and cash receipts, something which Brookson has adopted. The company is also allowing its customers to draft and issue invoices on their iPhone to stay abreast in this technologically seasoned market and is extending these capabilities over the coming year and introducing its apps to the Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Android operating systems.

John Stokdyk then raised the issue of self-service options and was interested in Lee’s views whether those self-employed professionals willing to complete their own account admin and data entry — and if so, was this something Brookson would facilitate? Lee responded by acknowledging that some individuals might want a level of self-service going forward, but most want a tailored, low hassle, service-led provision.

IR35 status and compliance

Marilyn Davidson mentioned IR35, the term used to denote UK tax legislation designed to tax ‘disguised employment’ at a rate similar to employment. She made the point that advice is still an important part of the service for contractors because some of the rules are ambiguous. Susie Hughes agreed that it was a judgement call and needed human input. She asked the rhetorical question: “If IR35 becomes a perfectly-defined regulation, maybe compliance to it could be managed by technology?”

In response to Marilyn and Susie’s comments, John Stokdyk also asked if Brookson is considering putting a basic IR35 checklist online. Martin Hesketh said that a checklist alone wouldn’t provide sufficient clarification of IR35 status, it would simply provide a ‘top-line’ guide as to whether an individual is working compliantly. Martin maintained that when it comes to establishing IR35 status, face-to-face advice should always be sought from professionals. Susie Hughes agreed that the only thing you could automate with IR35 is evidence collection and John Stokdyk concluded that the IR35 discussion defined the limits of what you can do with technology before you need expert advice.

Mobile access and technology

The Roundtable discussed whether Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and smartphones (and now the iPad!) are here to stay and which sectors are early adopters. Susie Hughes commented: “PDAs are rapidly becoming 'the norm' and simpler phones are disappearing.”

However, Lee Kingshott and Matt Johnson offered a slightly different perspective. Lee Kingshott believes: “It's not so much the device itself; it's what you can do with them. The iPhone is as successful as it is because it is focused on the user experience. Microsoft Silverlight is also overtaking Flash and it is what we are using to drive future website and mobile applications. We will be covering iPhone, Blackberry, Android and Windows Mobile platforms and we use Web services to feed the mobile apps that deliver information onto smartphones.”

Matt Johnson then made the point that once early adopters start to demonstrate the benefits of these apps, many people will follow suit. Martin Hesketh reported that perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common users of technologies in Brookson’s experience are in technical engineering industries, however, according to the company’s data, 50-70 year olds are bigger users compared with 20-30 year old counterparts. When looking specifically at users of mobile technology, research shows that 42% of IT customers use smartphones, falling to less than 10% in some sectors.

Summary

Chair Richard Anning concluded the session by asking the Roundtable, “In the context of the discussion, what challenges would you like to see technology solve?”

Rachael Singh: “A recent survey showed that ‘make technology work the way it’s supposed to work ― properly’ is the biggest issue.”

Susie Hughes: “People don't need innovation for innovation’s sake. Safe, sure, reliable, familiar and understandable is what’s important. Technology integrated with the judgement of qualified, experienced advisors.”

Marilyn Davidson: “APSCo members are looking for technology to provide consistency and reliability ― that it does what they expect and when they want it.”

John Stokdyk: “I want the digital Swiss Army Knife ― a device that allows me to do everything in one place. Convergence that works, accounting software that inter-operates.”

Martin Hesketh summarised: “In some ways the self-employed professional market is at the cutting edge of technology use — their flexible way of working; moving between locations sometimes without access to their laptop or computer, carrying out their skills whenever and wherever required means that they have a greater need for flexibility in terms of what they need their IT to deliver. It has to be at the forefront with information at its fingertips, something which all service suppliers to this market have to adapt in order to service them properly. We seem to agree that information is key here — these individuals are highly intelligent people more than capable of making their own decisions. Our goal, for one, is to provide totally the right information at the right time - without making decisions for customers.

“A recent customer survey revealed that the benefits of Brookson’s 24/7 accounting access allows them to keep a much closer track of their finances. They can access data after working hours and not waste time on the phone or at the bank during the day. They can also choose when they need to access data: most contractors and freelancers are not able to sort out their accounts 9-to-5.”