Don't be afraid of IT - just do it

Accountants and financial directors are often still wary of IT, however they are the ones who should be deciding how it should be...

Accountants and financial directors are often still wary of IT, however they are the ones who should be deciding how it should be applied.

But what does adding value really mean?

Contrary to common belief - and perhaps their own belief too - most accountants and financial directors are as techno-literate as they need to be. What they lack, however, is techno-confidence.

Everyone seems to agree that corporate finance staff should be evolving from their traditional score-keeping role into internal business consultants. But how can an accountant really add value to the business? What do they have that other people do not?

Usually the answer is information. Information that resides in financial and business management systems, which, if used correctly, can give the company the ability to see into the future.

Accountants, with access to those systems and an unparalleled understanding of what the business needs to know, are well placed to transform information into knowledge. But realistically, accountants are only in the right place to do that if they are confident about technology.

We know from experience that shipping out piles of management reports each month does not deliver the goods. Who has time to look through all that paper?

What is needed are presentations that are designed to let business managers find out exactly what they want or need to know, fast - and that means graphs and self-service facilities, rather than reams of paper.

How much does an accountant or financial director need to know?

Of course, it is not the case that all financial directors and accountants should be signing up for degrees in IT. Any accountant is likely to have received at least a modicum of IT training as part of his or her professional education, and in essence that is all the technical know-how you need.

You should not have to be an IT expert to keep your financial system ticking over, provided that it has been designed properly. What you do need, however, is to understand what can be achieved with technology.

Become familiar with the World-Wide Web, read the technological sections of the IT industry press and talk to your counterparts in other companies.

With the confidence that such investigations bring, you will be well positioned to work out how your organisation could make more of its information. You do not need to write technical specifications, but you do need to be able to say things like, "I want to give my branch managers online access to this data" or "I need to present this information as a management dashboard rather than as a printed table".

Once you know what is possible, you will be better able to prioritise technology investments. Companies typically defer simple steps that can save them vast sums of money - take, for example, sending remittance advices out electronically instead of printing and posting them. Organisations that have done this invariably wish they had bitten the bullet years before. Yet the only reason that companies put off doing this is fear.

You will see hardware decisions, too, in a different light. There is no point in saving £200 on buying a PC when a sales ledger clerk on a salary of £15,000 a year is wasting a third of his time because of a too-small screen or a less than ergonomic design.

If you have IT specialists in your firm, or work with a trusted IT provider, learning about technology might seem like keeping a dog and barking yourself. But no-one is suggesting that you take over the IT department's job. You should be finding the confidence to ask pertinent questions and objectively evaluate the answers.

Human nature being what it is, IT staff will sometimes tell you that something cannot be done when what they really mean is, "We haven't done it before". If you know what other companies are doing, you will be able to spot when someone is spinning you a yarn.

Increasingly, financial directors have managerial responsibility for the IT department. They have an additional reason for opening their eyes to what is going on inside IT.

Sure, you can hire consultants to help you develop an IT strategy or to recommend individual purchases. But really, no-one is as well placed to do these things as the person with inside information - you. Techno-confidence is all you need.

Philip Taylor is executive product director and founder of SquareSum

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