The retirement two years ago of a partner who nominally looked after IT was a trigger for Devon, UK-based Riley Chartered Accountants to review its IT arrangements.
Riley partner Jon Stacey took over responsibility for the 18-people firm’s IT strategy and decided “to go about about it the opposite way”.
“I aimed to get rid of all the servers in the office and all the people that we relied on for IT so we weren’t being hamstrung or held to ransom by anyone. And to make sure that whatever we did was as simple as it could be so it was as quick and simple for users,” Stacey says.
Lotus Notes vs Gmail
One of Stacey’s first tasks was to find a new email system. An early candidate was IBM Lotus Notes, however Stacey felt he would have had to invest a lot of time and potentially money understanding how it worked so he could coach other staff, he says.
“We had to choose an alternative. Cloud seemed to be the right way to go because we didn’t want to be managing software or hardware if we could help it,” Stacey says.
The firm had already started drifting away from Microsoft Office for the open-source productivity suite Open Office. Stacey says that the partners were not using 99 percent of the features of Word, Excel and Publisher but still had to pay for the whole suite.
“There was a frustration building up in the office as the majority of use that we made of things was at a very, very basic level. You wanted spreadsheets to add up, to do a filter and a pivot table and actually that was probably enough.
“Most of the time you weren’t macro programming, you weren’t writing VBA (programming) passages or anything else. That was what Google Apps was offering, at very cheap rates on a simple platform, and that was an advantage from our perspective.”
Next page: How Google Apps performs in accounting
Accounting with Google Apps
One challenge Riley Chartered Accountants faced with Google Apps was converting its audit package. The firm had chosen to write its own in Microsoft Excel rather than buy a standard package. The UK government’s introduction of a new set of auditing standards meant the firm had decide whether to rewrite the package in Excel or move it to Google Spreadsheets.
Stacey says he thought the firm could “steal a march” on competitors by moving the package to Google’s cloud suite so they could review and collaborate on audits live, “which would make a hell of a difference to the way we operate”.
So the firm rewrote the audit pack in Google Spreadsheets and “it worked remarkably well”, Stacey says. The audit pack comprised relatively simple calculations and wasn’t hugely macro driven.
“For most of our documentation and audit-based work Google Apps has been absolutely fine for us,” Stacey says. “There are occasions where we have heavyweight stock packages that have been dropped down into big Excel sheets which (Google) Apps isn’t man enough to deal with. But that’s increasingly rare.
“(Google) Apps is getting better as it goes. It’s never going to be Excel, but then we never needed Excel to be Excel anyway.”
Real-time editing, real-time business
Riley Chartered Accountants switched over to the Google Apps platform and found that the ability for multiple users to edit documents simultaneously transformed the way the firm operated.
“If someone is out on an audit and preparing an audit document, they’re putting all their details into their audit tests and conclusions and we can be live editing as they do that.
“Your audit perspective is much fresher, your appreciation of where they are in that moment of decision making is much better and it just sped up our audit process,” Stacey says.
While Riley Chartered Accountants has stopped using timesheets for fixed-price services, Stacey says that time is now a measure of the quality of service.
“It’s all about speed of response to clients. [You are] able to ask questions of clients [in real-time], and when they respond you ask them another question rather than wait for an email and think I wonder what I should ask about that now?”
Google Apps Marketplace
Google has established a software directory called Google Apps Marketplace. The directory lists applications that integrate with Google Apps.
Riley Chartered Accountants uses Xero for client-side accounting and Capsule CRM for managing its customers. The integration between the two programs and Google Apps was “fantastic”, Stacey says.
“If you’re in Capsule and you click on a client you can see how much you’ve billed them. If you click on that number it will take you into Xero. If you are in Google and you receive an email you click on it at the bottom and it sends it straight to Capsule,” Stacey says.
Next page: Considering a move back to Microsoft with Office 365
Returning to Microsoft Office 365
Stacey and several other partners trialled Microsoft’s cloud productivity suite, Office 365. Stacey has read many reviews and comparisons however he is not convinced the benefits of Office 365 apply equally to all industries or businesses, he says.
“Quite a lot of the reviews are saying [Office 365] is better than Google Apps and I’ve no doubt that’s probably the case if you’re a corporate organisation and control is everything.
“For us, speed, the ability to change and be ahead of the curve and make sure that people are pushing boundaries a little bit is more important to us.
“And the collaboration, in terms of mobile reviewing a document and changing things on the fly, is absolutely fantastic for us. That really is the gamechanger in how we’re working. From what I’ve seen, Office 365 really doesn’t do that in as good a way as Google Apps does.”
While Office 365 does allow for multi-user editing in some documents (Excel but not Word, for example), the preferred method of collaboration is through version control. Users “check out” a document from the SharePoint Online site while they work on it and check it back in once they’re finished.
Stacey says he thinks the Microsoft approach is clunky and “that alone makes me feel like I should stay where I am”.
A server-free future
Riley Chartered Accountants is still holding onto one server. It runs MYOB’s Viztopia for disclosure requirements, as the cloud accounting program Xero doesn’t yet produce full year-end accounts or audit reports. The server also holds tax software which hasn’t made the transition to the cloud.
The firm also has a legacy base of Sage users who are happy on their current platform, though increasingly they are requesting to move to something better, Stacey says.
Keeping a server to manage internal software reflected the fact that the accounting industry was falling behind the curve. “We’re not, we’re ahead of the curve and that’s part of the problem,” Stacey says.