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CIO interview: Julie Berry of Saffery Champness advances business advisory role for IT

Julie Berry, IT director at accountancy firm Saffery Champness, describes how her team has enhanced its advisory role to the business, in part through the implementation of a cloud-based document management system

Professional services provision is a big part of the lifeblood of the UK economy. The country’s law and accountancy firms are some of the most attractive employers for graduates of all disciplines, from archaeology to zoology.

Julie Berry, IT partner at accountancy firm Saffery Champness, has a great deal of experience in the legal sector, too. She has been at Saffery Champness for two years, having previously worked at law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain for 27 years.

Saffery Champness is a top 20 firm of chartered accountants and registered fiduciaries. It has been in operation for over 160 years.

“What I really like about professional services is the client service,” says Berry. That much the two professions do have in common, but there is a big technology difference, she adds.

“If you look at the top 50 law firms, beyond the Magic Circle, there are lots of them, so software firms have a lot of clients to sell to. With accountancy firms, the gap between the top four and the next tier down, and the rest is much bigger, so there are fewer firms for software vendors to sell to,” she says. “I’ve been saying to my law firm IT director colleagues, ‘Don’t complain’.”

Both professions generate documents as easily as breathing. Those documents need to be managed, and preferably not just in Outlook and a Windows Directory – nor, in Berry’s view, in an on-premise system.

Cloud-first

“I’ve been involved with document management for about 25 years, previously on-premise. When I came here, the journey to a new document management system was underway,” she says. “I am a great believer in cloud-first … none of us gets business strategic benefits from having servers in a comms room. It just doesn’t provide agility.”

There is a more profound advantage, too, with respect to the nature of the job of the IT professional, that cloud provision of applications confers, she says. “In professional services, people and premises are our most expensive assets,” says Berry. “I don’t want my people doing transactional things. I want them advising the business and taking it forward. Or providing assurance that enables the business to do new things.”

“In professional services, people and premises are our most expensive assets. I don’t want my people doing transactional things. I want them advising the business and taking it forward”

Julie Berry, Saffery Champness

Berry’s IT team, of around a dozen people, consists of an infrastructure team, members of which “are betwixt and between” with the move to cloud; an applications team; and a project manager. The applications team looks after software that falls into three buckets: the Office suite and the HR and finance systems; service line applications for accountancy-specific activities, such as audit, accounts and trusts; and client applications.

That third group looks after the applications the firm’s clients use, such as Sage, QuickBooks and specialist products that deal with things like landed estates and farming, which have very different assets to deal with, such as crops and animals. “But, essentially, we’ve got a lot, which you wouldn’t have in a law firm,” she says. “Lawyers tend to deliver their goods in a Word file or maybe a PowerPoint presentation. So that is a difference.”

The firm also has a specialist information security partner, Saepio. “That means we have a virtual CISO [chief information security officer],” says Berry.

Ease of use

The cloud document management system the firm chose and implemented last year, NetDocuments, has stood it in good stead during the Covid-19 coronavirus public health crisis.

“We would have struggled without it during the pandemic. It has enabled us to work from home without noticing a difference,” she says. “Before, we had a directory structure [in Microsoft Exchange] which was out of control, [with] people using sub-directories for storing documents and processes. Our mailboxes were out of control – exploding.”

NetDocuments has also provided the benefit of shining a light on ways of working across the business which had been sub-optimal. “As much as we’ve put a document management system in place, it has also been a change programme,” adds Berry.

The team selected the system in March 2019. “We wanted best of breed, and we wanted email integration,” she says. “That ruled out accountancy service line applications, such as that from WoltersKluwer.”

The final choice was between M-Files and NetDocuments. “M-Files works with knowledge and information, not matters or instructions. It was a step too far for us. Also, the email integration to Outlook was through a third-party product – too many moving parts,” says Berry.

The fact that NetDocuments has always been a software-as-a-service (SaaS) product is clear from the user interface and its consistency, she says, and that was a big advantage.

“What made NetDocuments stand out from the competition is the overall user experience. We were impressed by the easy-to-use user interface and by how it mirrored the applications our staff use every day. We felt this was very important in getting employees to buy in to using a new system,” says Berry.

The implementation project began in April 2019. “We had to be done by the first two weeks in November, because of the burden of tax advice we’re giving from that time,” she says. “We had it done by 21 October.”

Communicating value

But, as often is the case, the challenge was one of communication – in this case putting over “the concept of the system saving the document without the user saving it manually in a specific folder – that was an alien concept”.

“We had dedicated training sessions so that staff were able to see the value it could bring to their work – such as the ‘saved search’ function, which meant staff no longer had to waste time filing documents into folders and finding documents themselves,” she says.

“Enabling staff to access our documents from anywhere using their device of choice is becoming increasingly important as working practices change. This is crucial for employee productivity and happiness as we look to attract and retain the best talent”
Julie Berry, Saffery Champness

The system is used by 600 professionals and partners and 200 support staff in the UK mainland and in Dublin. The firm has 10 offices, from Inverness to Bournemouth.

With NetDocuments, there are further things coming down the line. “As with all such projects, as much as we finished in 2019, we’re still embedding it, talking to people about it,” she says. “We also use it for our own business – it is not just a document management system to deal with the clients. For instance, we are pulling away from SharePoint and sharing through the document management system, and that’s an ongoing project.”

In the meantime, the system has provided the accountancy firm with a central and secure space in the cloud to hold and manage emails and documents.

From a security standpoint, employees now have the ability to share sensitive client documents through secure links. NetDocuments also keeps data protected across the organisation, helping Saffery Champness to comply with policies such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by deleting information when it is no longer required.

And there has been a work-life balance benefit, especially salient during this year of mass-scale working from home.

“Enabling staff to access our documents from anywhere using their device of choice is becoming increasingly important, especially as working practices change,” Berry concludes. “We think this is crucial for employee productivity and happiness as we look to attract and retain the best talent.”

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