The Smart Way to Invest in Computers

How to make technology work for you.

    KEEPING CURRENT WITH OFFICE technology doesn't have to be overly expensive. With the proper planning, it can be both economical and a productivity booster. Here are some of the steps you must take to accomplish that goal:
  • Don't base your computer-buying decisions solely on price. Plan ahead so all your machines are compatible.
  • Seek to develop a long-term relationship with one vendor in your area that can provide you with technical support and then purchase your computers there.
  • If your staff lacks a technical support person, retain a consultant to guide your organization.
  • Develop a standard computer configuration for each group of workers, giving the more powerful equipment to those who do programming and heavy database work or use mission-critical or heavy client-server applications. Give regular configurations to the majority of users. And give those who do not use their computers much the least powerful machines.
  • Initiate a rotation program by replacing a quarter to a half of your computer inventory every year or two. Then rotate the existing machines among the other user groups.
  • Avoid the kind of rote training presented at most computer training schools. Instead, consider hiring a consultant for two or three hours to point out the most productive features of the equipment-tailored to users' needs.
SANDI SMITH, CPA, CMA, CDP, is a Dallas-based sole practitioner specializing in technology consulting. She serves on the information technology executive committee and the strategic planning advisory committee of the American Institute of CPAs and is a member of the Texas Society of CPAs technology review committee. She is the author of the AICPA's 1997 Top 10 Technologies and Their Impact on CPAs . Her e-mail address is .

Keeping current with office technology is expensive. Right? Faster, smarter computers and software just keep rolling out, and even though the upgrades are expensive, accountants have no choice but to keep making the investments. Right? And not only are their budgets severely dented but also there's the huge amount of wasted time as staffers fumble about trying to decipher the latest software upgrade. Right again?

Well, if you answered yes to the above questions, it's likely you're not getting the most out of technology. The fact is, keeping current with office technology doesn't have to be overly expensive; nor does it have to be a time waster. This article guides you through the steps needed to make your investment in office technology more productive, less expensive and far less painful.

Does every person in your organization who needs a computer have one-and is it the right computer for the work the person does?

It's common in some organizations for workers to share a computer, which in most cases means neither person is able to work at full efficiency. Or, equally bad, some organizations keep computers that are so old and underpowered that they cannot run much of the software the rest of the office uses or they lose or corrupt data.

Let's see how-if you invest in the right equipment for everyone who needs it-it's possible for your investment in both people and equipment to generate an ample return.

Many organizations shop for their computers at the nearest discount store when it has a special of the month. One month it's a Packard Bell; the next month it's an AST. In all likelihood, if you buy computers strictly on price, none of the machines are fully compatible. Each requires different settings and maybe even different connection hardware to work with a network, printers and modems. For an experienced technical person on your staff, this incompatibility is an irritant and a time waster. And if you don't have a technical person on your staff, the lack of compatibility is likely to be a very expensive headache that could result in frequent crashes and lost data.

To solve this shortcoming, change your buying habits. You'll find that even if you pay a bit more for each computer, in the long run you'll save both money and time. Develop a long-term relationship with one vendor in your area that can provide you with technical support and then purchase all your equipment there. But be wary; for every computer novice there is a salesperson waiting to authenticate the P. T. Barnum claim about a sucker born every minute. If you have any doubts about the vendor, bring in a consultant to guide you in selecting the right equipment. A good consultant will question such things as the need for a laser vs. an inkjet printer or an active matrix laptop screen vs. dual-scan.

If your organization has an in-house technical person or has developed a good relationship with a consultant, you could even buy your equipment by mail order; the prices are very competitive.

Develop a standard computer configuration for each group of workers. Begin by dividing your staff into groups based on computing needs. For example, give the most powerful computers to those with the heaviest computing chores-the power users who do programming and heavy database work or use mission-critical or heavy client-server applications. Give regular configurations to the majority of users. And give those who do not use their computers much the least powerful machines.

As you can see, those in the highest-paid jobs would not necessarily receive the newest, most powerful computers. In many organizations it's normal for a senior manager to receive a new, power-packed machine even though he or she spends only two days in the office-and then only rarely uses the computer to do anything other than get e-mail- spending the rest of the week visiting clients or customers. The decision not to give a senior person the best computer may ignite a major political debate in your organization, but it's worth following through on the guidelines because they really do make good business sense.

Agree on a standard machine for each group. Determine what software applications each group uses and how they work. For example, do users travel or occasionally work at home? If so, they will need laptops and remote access to home office computers. The configurations should detail such information as chip type (486, Pentium), hard disk size, sound card, modem, operating system and software packages (including version numbers). You may have to make some exceptions for unusual cases, but in general try to stick to the policy.


Problem: Your power users' machines are two years old. Applications crash, customer orders get lost, reports are late. You hate to throw away perfectly good two-year-old machines, yet they are no longer powerful enough to meet the needs of power users.

Solution: Initiate a rotation program. First, replace a quarter to a half of your computer inventory every year or two. Then rotate the existing machines among the other user groups. The power users receive new machines and the older models are distributed to those who need less power. The three-year-old machines should be sold, donated or recycled for parts.

Look at these typical scenarios: Cynthia spent two hours trying to send a fax through the computer. She finally realized that she wrote down the wrong keystrokes when Jim showed her the steps last week. George made a wording change to the footers in an Excel spreadsheet at his boss's request. When he printed the workbook, the sheets no longer fit on one page. He spent all morning reworking the page layout of each sheet.

How can you prevent this productivity drain? The answer is good training-not the rote training most computer training schools offer. Instead of relying on a crib sheet of carefully recorded keystrokes, users should be trained to think like the software. They should be taught where to look for commands and how they work in general. That way they will be able to figure out how to complete a computer task even if they do not know every keystroke in advance. In addition, make sure there is a person or a place that workers can call to obtain help before they waste hours.

How to get help: Unless users really have a knack for the computer, those who want to teach themselves can be their own worst enemy-they will waste time. Likewise, it may not be smart to invest a full day in an Excel class, either. Instead, consider hiring a consultant for two or three hours to point out the most productive features of the software-tailored to users' needs. Expect to pay $30 to $40 per hour (which is still cheaper than a full-day course). Look in your community college or adult learning organization for good hands-on instructors who take private clients.

Does your organization have a technology plan? If it's like most organizations, the answer is no. Here are the steps you should take to remedy that shortcoming:

1. Look at where you spend money and ask yourself how technology can help. Some examples include the following:

  • Save long-distance telephone and delivery charges by sending your messages and documents via e-mail.
  • Save labor, office supplies and long-distance phone charges by sending a fax from the computer instead of by fax machine. The savings: You don't have to make a paper copy, go to the fax machine, wait to be sure the pages don't jam-and if they do, resend. The cost of sending a fax via computer is a fraction of the cost of sending a machine fax.

2. Develop a priority list of technology projects to do each year, selecting the most cost-effective jobs. But be careful; most companies over- or underestimate the costs and benefits of technology. If you are not familiar with the technologies, it would pay to hire a consultant.

3. When formulating the company's technology budget, be sure that you include

  • Workstation costs and training expenses.
  • Administrative costs of technology management, including license compliance, purchasing, receiving and standards management.
  • Technical support, including hardware and software setup and help line calls.
  • Disaster prevention and recovery, including routine backups and virus inoculations.
  • Network administration, including security and all mission-critical applications.

Can you identify and measure the savings achieved through technology? Develop an annual score card, which could include

1. Costs in specific areas where savings were expected.

2. Customer service or product changes due to technology.

3. Cost for the time to generate a specific service compared with the time it took earlier.

Considering the speed at which new technology is introduced, staying current is not easy. As CPAs, we have the added burden of keeping up with technical pronouncements, legislation and company and industry news. Throwing up your hands won't help; the answer is to plan better. First, you have to make a concession: The technology field is so large, it's unlikely that you can stay current on all aspects of it by yourself. However, reading-or at least skimming-the popular computer magazines (such as PC Magazine and PC World ) or the Journal of Accountancy can be very helpful. Also, develop your own network of experts (other CPAs, computer hobbyists) and swap information with them.

In such a detail-oriented world, give yourself permission to have a little fun, too. Play a little Motown or Mozart on the PC while you are working on that spreadsheet. Send a coworker a voice e-mail. Clip a red car over the red car sales figures on the spreadsheet. And if you do not know how to do these things, ask your well-trained colleagues to show you how on their well-equipped workstations.


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