IT survey - Waiting for the next big thing

The ICAEW's IT survey shows accountants to be tech-savvy and increasingly difficult to please, says Lesley Meall.

Fools rush in, and accountants like to take their time. So, in the three years that have passed since the ICAEW last surveyed IT use in accountancy practices, uptake among the profession has not increased dramatically.

In most areas, software use has remained stable, although the adoption of practice management software has increased from 16% in 2004 to 26%, and uptake of company secretarial software has increased from 7% in 2001 to 17%. The use of dedicated time and fees applications has fallen by a similar amount to this increase, so it seems fair to assume that firms are swapping from one to the other. But the survey reveals very little in the way of change; and website development seems to have ground to a halt.

Web benefit

The number of firms with websites has reached a plateau; and the biggest firms, who have had their websites for longest, do not expect to be able to extract any more value from them. Back in 2004, 37% of the firms surveyed had a website; now that figure is 39%; and neither figure is much higher than it was in 2000. This doesn't stop an optimistic, but unrealistic, 10% from repeatedly asserting its intention to develop a website some time soon. In 2004, 14% of the survey respondents without a website were planning to set one up over the next year; now the figure is 12%. So it seems safe to assume that firms without one are unlikely to make the leap into cyberspace just yet.

But of those that already do, many have yet to realise the benefits: only 11% of firms provide a remote book-keeping service via their website, allowing clients to make remote entries or run reports. This is a missed opportunity for many firms, because the satisfaction levels among those that do are very high, with 98% perceiving it as very or quite useful.

'Small firms are starting to realise the potential of their websites,' comments Dr Paul Booth, the technical and development manager at the ICAEW IT Faculty. 'Over the next 12 months, 71% of them are expecting to get better value from them,' he adds, while the larger firms, which have had their websites the longest, have very different expectations. 'This makes sense,' he says, 'because those with mature websites will be further along the road to extracting maximum value. 'Smaller firms seem excited by the prospect of being able to use their websites to improve and increase their interaction with clients,' comments Booth, adding: 'There is recognition that there are more opportunities to be extracted.'

But in many respects, the profession's use of technology has reached a plateau. Early adopters who were going to lead by example have already done so, likewise those who watched from a safe distance until they were sure the risk of following was not too great. Until the next 'big thing' comes along, dramatic changes will be conspicuous by their absence. Now, most signs of change are being generated by stragglers, stick-in-the-muds, very new or very old members of the profession, who are slowly but surely edging themselves in or out, and by the passage of time.

Integrate or die

But this mature market is characterised by tech-savvy users who are increasingly difficult to please. You know what you want from the software and systems you use to run your firms, and you are not impressed with suppliers who can't or won't deliver it. Take the issue of integration. This is the first time the survey has looked into the integration of software, but the questions will resonate with practitioners: nobody should ever need to key customer details into more than one application.

Many firms use software from more than one supplier (57% of the survey sample), most of them are keen to see the integration between those applications increase, and 60% believe that software houses are doing little to help.

It will be interesting to see what the feedback on integration is in the next survey, because the ICEAW IT Faculty has worked with specialist software suppliers to develop the XAPL (eXtensible Accountancy Practice Language) standard, which could be used to end many integration problems.

But if you want to be able to exploit it, software suppliers will need to build it into their applications. Those with a broad range of integrated offerings are, understandably, less enthusiastic about this initiative than those with products that will benefit from better integration with other offerings. 'We did get all of the suppliers together in a room to discuss the development of XAPL,' says Booth, 'but Digita has done most of the leg-work.' Larger suppliers have taken more of a back seat. 'We're participating,' says Greg Ford, managing director of Sage Accountants' Division. 'We know that people want to see open standards,' he adds, but how soon you get them is another matter - apparently 'it's about market demand'. If you don't ask, you won't get.

If you are using software to run your practice, you already know whether it helps you to get the job done, but this survey can provide you with an insight into how your experience rates against that of accountants using other suppliers' software - and some packages did significantly better than others.

And the winners are…

Packages that did particularly well in the survey included taxation products supplied by Drummohr (Tax Assistant) and PTP (CT Platform & Tax Return), accounts production packages supplied by IRIS and VT, practice management packages from IRIS and MYOB, and the Superpay payroll package. 'We have only highlighted products where there is a clear difference between them and their competitors in terms of perceived performance and recommendation,' says Booth, echoing the very careful wording used in the report (software suppliers are so easily offended).

Suppliers that did well are understandably chuffed. 'We are immensely grateful to all of our customers who responded so positively to the researchers,' says Martin Leuw, group CEO of Iris. 'Since the ICAEW surveys began in 2000, IRIS Practice products have continued to consistently lead the field across all sizes of firm surveyed,' he adds, although the company's capacity to keep its customers happy seems to be declining as the size of the group increases. How well PTP (now part of Iris) fares in the next survey remains to be seen. Growing via acquisition can be a painful process for everyone involved, even if you are shopping for best-of-breed suppliers, as Iris has done.

Sage has experienced similar growing pains in the past, but over the past year or so it has committed significant sums of money to dealing with some of the issues the survey results highlighted. Sage Payroll Professional and Sage Payroll both did well in the survey; the latter is the clear market leader, and users are highly likely to recommend it. But while its performance and reliability are highly rated, initial and ongoing service are rated as its weakest attributes. Other Sage products, however, did not fare so well.

Sage accounts production software may be increasing its market share, but the survey indicates that the loyalty rating of users is relatively poor, and Sage Accounts Production Advanced had the highest level of business critical failures in its category. And its taxation products - Sage Personal Tax, Sage Corporation Tax Lite, Sage/Advanced (Abacus) - all did relatively poorly. But the software supplier was prepared for the worst. 'We are disappointed,' says Ford, but Sage is working on the problems: 'The survey,' he adds, 'was telling us things we know already.'


Based on satisfaction ratings for widely-used packages

Service                          Product
Accounts Production:             IRIS Accounts Production
                                 VT Final Accounts
Personal Taxation:               Drummohr Tax Assistant
                                 PTP TaxReturn
Corporation Taxation:            Drummohr Tax Assistant
                                 PTP CT Platform
Payroll:                         Superpay
Practice Management:             IRIS Practice Management
                                 MYOB Viztopia Practice

ICAEW IT in Accountancy Practices Survey 2006


•    More realistic expectations on the web benefits.

•    Increase in internet use.

•    Company secretarial software continues to grow.

•    Practice management software has grown significantly.

•    Little growth in stand-alone document management and customer relationship management packages.

•    Integration of software still a problem, and one that software companies are not tackling.


The research was managed and reported by the Members' and Market Research Centre of the ICAEW, along with the Faculty of Information Technology, and designed, conducted and analysed by TNS, an independent market research company.

Research interviews were conducted by telephone with persons with management responsibility for decisions involving IT within 700 accountancy practices in England and Wales. In addition, 175 'boost' interviews were conducted in order to obtain sufficient responses for selected software products to allow for in-depth analysis.

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