|Val D. Steed, CPA, is chief executive officer of K2 Enterprises, Centerville, Utah, a technology-training organization. He is a member of the American Institute of CPAs strategic planning committee and the information technology executive committee. K2 Enterprises' Web page is at http://www.k2e.com and his e-mail address is val@.pipeline.com .|
It's no secret that the accounting profession has been slow to adapt to computer technology. The only exceptions have been CPAs' early use of computerized spreadsheet, word processing and tax preparation software.
In the last few years, most CPAs have played catch-up. Some, to their cha grin, have even rushed to try the very latest-and often untested-technology only to discover that they would have been wiser to stick to tried-and-true applications.
This article focuses on five very practical, well-proven technologies that CPAs in all areas of the profession should be using now. If you aren't applying all of them, you're not armed with the most efficient professional tools. In fact, if you aren't familiar with any of them, then you seriously lag behind the times and owe it to yourself, your employer or your clients to get on track with them.
Building skills in technology is vital because it will help you become more productive and valuable as a professional. The best way to build expertise with computer tools is to set aside at least two hours a week to learn something new or practice an application you already have.
Following are the five tools all CPAs should be using regularly and with proficiency.1
WINDOWS 95 OR NT
If you're not using Windows 95 or NT, you're working with a handicap. Both are computer operating systems-the software that tells a computer it's a computer and supports all the software applications on it.
The major benefit of the new Windows operating systems is multitasking, a technology that allows computers to do more than one job at a time. As if that's not enough, it performs those simultaneous chores with relative data safety. Some perspective: Nearly all software application programs "crash," or freeze up, at one time or another. In earlier versions of Windows (Windows 3.x), such an event typically stalls not only the application but also brings down the entire computer; when that happens, the computer must be rebooted (turned off and then on again). Such a drastic step often results in lost data.
But with Windows 95 and NT, each application is protected; if one does crash, only that application must be halted and restarted, and usually the information on the screen is preserved.
Windows 95 and NT boast numerous other improvements. For example, file names no longer are limited to 11 characters (8 plus 3); they can be as long as 255 characters. Also, Windows 95 and NT manage random-access memory (RAM) more efficiently. In Windows 3.x, it was not enough just to have ample memory. That memory had to be managed properly, usually by other software, or the computer could not access it and the applications that needed memory could not run.
Also, in general the new Windows operating systems run much faster than the earlier versions. Windows 95 and NT can operate on any personal computer as long as it's at least a 386SX. However, compared with newer computers, software runs sluggishly on a 386. As a practical matter, the minimum configuration should be a 486, 50 megahertz (MHz) machine with 16 megabytes (Mb) of RAM, although offices today really should be equipped with Pentium (also referred to as 586) computers.
In addition, the new Windows systems run almost every old DOS and Windows 3.x software application-and can even multitask them, too.
Windows 95 is designed to handle both a standalone computer and a small network. The network module is built in and can handle as many as 10 computers set up with a file server (a single, powerful computer that delivers application software and files to the various workstations on the network).
When set up as a peer-to-peer network (where each computer can access all the others on the network), Windows 95 can support at least 10 users. However, if the applications being run on the network are not resource-intensive (such as a low-end accounting or tax package), the number of concurrent users can rise to about 35. But if a resource-intensive application, such as a high-end accounting program, is run on the peer-to-peer network, then 10 users is the maximum.
NT, on the other hand, which also can run on a standalone machine, is designed primarily for networks, handling up to 10 in a peer-to-peer arrangement. Set up with a centralized computer operating as a file server, the number of stations it can operate is limited only by the hardware. For more on network choices, see JofA, Feb.97, "Selecting the Right Computer Network," .
If you're upgrading computers to run either Windows 95 or NT, aim to get at least a 100-MHz Pentium with 16 Mb of RAM. Be sure to get a CD-ROM drive, too, with at least a 4x speed. Since multimedia is becoming increasingly important, add a sound system; many new machines come with sound systems built in. Although large monitors tend to be rather pricey, consider at least a 17-inch model; larger is better because it can display more data with more clarity. If you're buying a computer as a server for a small network, add another 16 Mb of RAM, for a total of 32 Mb.2
By the year 2000, it's estimated that 80% of all business communication will occur electronically. This includes billings, notices, mail, research and payments. Currently, the vehicle for most of the communications is an Internet e-mail address. If you don't use e-mail now, imagine what it would be like doing business in the 1990s without a telephone. E-mail accessibility is generally available for as little as $10 a month, but for unlimited online access and an e-mail address, budget about $20 a month. 3
Despite all the hoopla, the Internet can provide accountants with a wide assortment of useful information via World Wide Web sites. Some of the information that can be downloaded as needed includes Internal Revenue Service forms, software updates, new hardware configuration files and airline schedules as well as information on tax and accounting, the Securities and Exchange Commission, investments and the weather. The list grows continually. Most information services are free; others carry a minimal charge. 4
The Internet provides access to a multitude of expert and professional discussion groups, a significant plus for accountants looking for advice on various issues. For example, two popular newsgroups are the American Institute of CPAs Accountants Forum on CompuServe (GO AICPA) or the Tax Analysts Newsgroups on the Web ( http:// www.tax.org ). CPAs ask questions on them and get answers from other CPAs. Only subscribers to CompuServe can access the Accountants Forum.
Internet newsgroups generally are free and require only that you subscribe (all it takes is a click of a button to register-no fees). Some specialty newsgroups require that you sign up and pay fees. For more on Internet resources, see "Where to Find Help Online," by John J. Gill.5
As the business world becomes more mobile, it's increasingly important for CPAs, no matter where they are, to be able to connect their computers to their offices or other remote sites. Remote access software creates that link, giving CPAs the ability to work from home, from clients' offices or even from a pay phone at an airport.
With remote access software a CPA can
- Take control of a remote computer, run software programs on it and either transfer files to or download from it. It's even possible to start or shut down the remote computer.
- Conduct a real-time keyboard chat with another CPA at the remote computer.
The downside: Because large packets of data are flowing back and forth over ordinary telephone lines, the computer connection often may be very slow, so be patient. In the not-too-distant future that problem will be solved-either by very high-capacity transmission lines or very sophisticated compacting of the trans- mitted data.
Remote access software products cost less than $100. Running the applications requires two modems-one at each end. The modems should have a capacity of at least 28,800 bits per second. Although Windows 95 has remote access software built in, most people prefer to use more powerful and sophisticated third-party products such as pcAnywhere, Remote or Carbon Copy-all of which are available at any software retail outlet.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Technology is not a fad. It will not pass. If anything, it will get more complicated, but it also will get more useful. In fact, accountants who embrace the new technology will find significant new busines opportunities open to them. Those who resist it may find themselves with fewer clients or stalled in their careers. CPAs must improve their use of technology skills if they are going to be part of a profession that business looks to for advice.