Archived News Article
By LD Bean, CFO, COO Xcentric Group
It is common at this time of year to make resolutions. Frequently those resolutions are intended to make us healthier, richer, happier…or all of the above. Let’s take a few minutes to see what resolutions you can make this New Year to ensure that the technology you use in your firm is as healthy as it can be, thus increasing the chance that it will make you happier and/or richer.
1. Create a “technology plan”.
Just as a business plan helps you make decisions on the direction of your business, you need a technology plan to assist you in making decisions about hardware, software and training purchases. You should include a fairly specific budget for year one of the plan, and successively less specific budgets for years two and three.
According to the AICPA’s Information Technology Team, your Technology Budget should include a three-year projection of hardware and software costs (including maintenance and licensing), Outsourcing requirements and about 15% for contingencies and sales tax.
You will probably need assistance in developing this plan and it should be prepared only after you have thoroughly reviewed your current technology situation. We would recommend that you work with a technology consultant that is familiar with CPA firm software and work-load requirements.
2. Review current network infrastructure and security, making appropriate changes.
The increased use of technology in the accounting industry has made CPA firms 100% dependent upon their networks. How much work gets done in your office when the network is down or malfunctioning? Most firms have an idea of the opportunity cost if their staff cannot use the network for a day, but few consider how to minimize down time or increase productivity until it is too late.
A properly configured network can increase productivity in your firm tremendously. When determining if your firm is using the best network solution for the way it does business, consider the obvious speed and reliability factors of your network design, as well as ease of use, standardized interface, remote access capabilities, and other not so obvious factors.
You may not only be missing out on productivity, but your network may be exposed to internal or external tampering. The proliferation of viruses, worms, “hacking” and other forms of computer tampering have grown exponentially over the last two years. The automation of hacking tools has eliminated the belief that you have to be a target to worry about someone accessing your computers or network. Someone has probably already scanned your network if you have a full-time connection to the Internet. If you do not have a firewall and proper internal security, you should be very fearful of what may possibly happen to your network this year.
We would recommend that you consult with a technology company that has experience in the accounting industry and knows your environment well in order to determine the best network solution for your firm.
3. Implement and enforce an appropriate security policy.
Up till now, it is easy to forget that the Internet is not the only method for someone to obtain unauthorized access to your technology. There is a high risk for that type of activity and you should protect yourself appropriately against it, but you also need to protect your firm from unauthorized physical access to your server, workstations, phone system and any other technology that contains vital or confidential information.
A server can be physically tampered with if it is not in a locked room or server cabinet. Many telephone systems of late allow you to call in to collect your voice mail. This can be a great productivity enhancer, but you may also be able to dial out from that phone system once you have gained access to the voice mail system. Workstations that are left on without password protection can allow access to your sensitive data by anyone who can physically sit down in front of it.
To protect your firm, you should develop a security policy including passwords for login to computers, servers, voice mail systems, etc. Your security policy should include how to create a proper password and the frequency of changing the passwords. It can be difficult to develop a policy that will secure your assets, as well as being easy to use and understand. You must make sure that your staff will fully participate. It may take a couple of tries to strike the right balance, but it is an important task to complete. Keep in mind that it is unlikely that you can completely stop unwanted persons from gaining access to your data, but you can slow them down considerably.
4. Evaluate wireless technology.
By the end of 2003, 70% of laptop computers, Tablet PCs and PDAs will have wireless communication capabilities. Wireless technology offers “untethered” communication over your Local Area Network (LAN). Wireless LANs (WLANs) offer several benefits that can result in increased productivity and decreased costs. One benefit is you do not have to install (or replace) wiring for your LAN, thus saving time and money when implementing a LAN.
Another benefit is that you can construct and tear down a WLAN in multiple locations with relative ease. CPA firms can set up a temporary WLAN at client sites, trade shows or conferences.
Scalability is another advantage of implementing wireless technology. You can set up a WLAN for as few as one user to have wireless Internet access and up to a large enterprise network dispersed over a campus environment.
Although the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard has many security issues, a new, second version of WEP, based on the recently released Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), should come out this year and promises to resolve many of the security issues. Even if it is not completely secure, a WLAN may still be beneficial to your firm.
5. Start using PDAs in your firm.
Personal Digital Assistants have become ubiquitous. The ability to take your calendar, contacts and email with you can be of great benefit and much easier to manage than the paper planners and organizers of the past. Since they synchronize with your computer, you only have to enter the pertinent information, such as appointments and contacts, once.
The capabilities of Palm Pilots, Handsprings, Pocket PCs, phone devices, etc. will continue to expand this year and may have that one feature that will convince you to use one. Don’t let the year go by without trying one yourself.
6. Implement an Intranet or Portal.
Portals or Intranets are quickly gaining popularity. Portals and Intranets consolidate resources like research websites, internal documentation, applications and databases. A portal or intranet can give your firm a standardized interface so your staff works at the same desktop whether they are in the office, at a client or working from home. You can also use your Intranet/Portal to communicate with your staff – equivalent to the break room bulletin board, if you will. It will also allow more centralized network administration. See the article “Portals: The Future of Your Workplace. TODAY!” by Trey James in the October 28, 2002 issue of ExSTRM Vision Alert for additional information on portals.
7. Attend at least one technology-related CPE course or conference.
In order to harness the power of technology, you need to know what technology is available and how other CPA firms are using it. There are numerous conferences, seminars and courses available. The IT Membership Section of the AICPA holds a technology conference each year that focuses on emerging technologies and technology trends. This is generally an excellent conference. See the AICPA website (www.aicpa.org) for information on this year’s conference. If you cannot attend, review your state society’s CPE catalog for opportunities to expand your technology knowledge.
8. Implement a tracking/ticketing system for internal technical support issues.
Many CPA firms have difficulty tracking internal technical support or Help Desk issues. They seem to drag out for days or even weeks because too often the person responsible for the firm Help Desk is so busy putting out fires that they have no time to address the smaller issues until they become fires themselves. A tracking/ticketing system will give your firm the ability to allow someone in a management or partner position to monitor the progress of issues and assist with prioritization when necessary. It can also give your technical staff a knowledge base of resolutions for common problems.
Bergan, Paulsen & Company, P.C. headquartered in Waterloo, Iowa developed a ticketing system using a Microsoft Access database. They use this system to track internal issues as well as issues submitted by clients for which they do technology consulting. Dan Roling, the firm’s Supervisor of Technology Consulting, says that the system’s implementation has been extremely successful, providing much needed relief to his staff.
If your firm lacks the resources to develop your own system, there are many available commercially. Xcentric, a leading national provider of technology support, consulting services and solutions for the CPA industry will soon have a Help Desk solution available as part of it’s axessPoint technology.
9. Verify that your software licenses are accurate and up to date.
Each year brings more complexity and less flexibility to software licensing from almost every software vendor. New technologies, such as Terminal Services, .NET and ASPs, are changing the way software licensing is purchased. It is imperative that your firm is legally licensed for all software applications in use. If your firm has illegal copies of software installed on company property, you may be subject to substantial legal ramifications, including fines up to $250,000. For additional information on software piracy and the law, visit the Business Software Alliance’s website at http://www.bsa.org/usa/antipiracy/law/.
We strongly urge you to communicate with all of your software vendors to determine if your firm is in compliance. Most vendors are eager to assist you with your compliance efforts. For example, you can obtain many tools for tracking Microsoft software at http://www.microsoft.com/piracy/.
You should also implement an approval process for the loading of any software applications on company computers. Not only will you prevent inadvertent software piracy, but also you may avoid difficulties with your existing applications that may have incompatibilities with the pirated software.
10. Review Internet bandwidth usage and requirements.
Our society has become increasing reliant on the Internet. CPA firms in particular have become heavy users of email, online research tools, newsletters and other Internet technologies. As more information is available on the Internet, more of your staff will be accessing the information using your single point of Internet connectivity. Productivity can be greatly impacted if your Internet bandwidth is inadequate. The good news is that there has been a significant drop in rates for high-speed Internet connections in the last eighteen months. There is also a greater variety of options available for connecting. The most economical connectivity is DSL (digital subscriber lines) and cable modems, which have become widely available. You should review the cost and availability of Internet connectivity every six months to determine the earliest time that the benefits outweigh the cost of connection.
Review these resolutions with your IT committee and determine which are appropriate for your firm. Some may seem more important than others. There may be some that are not on this list that would revolutionize the way your firm does business. The key is that you have to be aware of the possibilities before you will ever implement them. You have taken your first step by subscribing to the ExSTRM Vision Alert. We urge you to continue gathering knowledge about technology in any manner available. Good luck with all of your resolutions and may you have a prosperous New Year.
LD Bean is CFO & COO of Xcentric, LLC, a technology consulting group that specializes in providing peace of mind to CPA’s across the country. He can be reached at 678.297.0066 x132 or at "ld at xcentricgroup.com".
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