Harnessing Computers to Communicate

CPAs next level of technical fluency.

  • UNTIL RECENTLY, the major applications of computers have been relatively limited to storing information, calculating data, producing reports and preparing tax returns.
  • TODAY, THE ROLE OF COMPUTERS is expanding quickly into the communications arena, highlighting the need for CPAs to expand their vision and skills in the use of computers.
  • CULTURAL AND LEGAL DEVELOPMENTS also are making computer communications more of a business standard. An increasing number of people are working outside the conventional office environment—either at home or on the road—and thus need technology to link with the office.
  • EQUIPMENT THAT USES the telephone system to send and receive data from afar is being improved so data can move at greater speeds.
  • ALSO, THERE ARE many ways to transfer and access information between multiple locations: via individual connection, remote access, remote control and remote node.
  • DATA AND VIDEO CONFERENCING have become easily accessible technologies and can link, by sight and sound, even the most remote offices.
Roman H. Kepczyk , CPA, is a principal with Boomer Consulting (a division of Practitioners Publishing Co.), based in Manhattan, Kansas. He is a member of the American Institute of CPAs information technology research subcommittee and an advisory board member of the Association for Accounting Administration. His e-mail address is roman@boomer.com .

T he information of business is not only being written on computers; its also being written by them. Which is why accountants professional future depends increasingly on fluency with this digital tool.

Until recently, the major applications of computers have been relatively limited: They stored information, calculated spreadsheets, provided reports, prepared tax returns and sent and received messages. Today, the role of computers is expanding quickly in the communications arena: They are reaching out and receiving (or sending) information from multiple remote locations and then filtering, calculating and formatting it before distributing it to those who need it down the hall, across town or halfway around the world.

Its that role of the computer—as a communications instrument—that business is increasingly relying on. This article explores the cultural, managerial and technical issues that arise from the expanding use of computers as communications tools.

One of the key forces driving business toward digital communications is the Internet. Its important that the CPA profession embrace the Net, taking advantage of its user-friendly way to communicate, share and locate data. Most users are being exposed to this technology through commercial services such as CompuServe and America Online. This is the recommended way for accountants to begin experiencing remote computing, because such services provide a simple menu to send and receive e-mail, transfer files and access information resources.

Cultural and legal developments also are making digital communications more attractive and more of a business standard. An increasing number of people are working outside the conventional office environment—either at home or on the road—and thus need technology to link with the office.

In addition, the Federal Clean Air Act requires organizations with more than 100 employees and situated in certain metropolitan areas to reduce worksite commutes by 25% during peak travel hours. To meet the laws requirements, many companies are moving to four-day work weeks and flextime. Meanwhile, others are embracing telecommuting options that incorporate remote computing.

Also, many entities are affected by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for specific family or medical reasons such as the birth or adoption of a child or the care of a family member. Many CPA firms would face a major hardship if a key tax manager was out for 12 weeks during tax season.

Finally, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 requires businesses to provide facilities with "reasonable accommodation" for disabled employees. If a building cannot be adequately modified, telecommuting becomes an economical and practical option.

The move to telecommuting is benefiting both employers and employees. Studies have shown that telecommuters are more productive than those who work in a centralized office. In addition, such a setup sharply lowers employers overhead. For example, a Xerox office in Phoenix eliminated much of its sales force office space and set up offices for them in their homes. Salespeople come into the office only for client demonstrations and sales meetings, which also provide time for them to socialize with their colleagues—an important ingredient for overall productivity.

Now lets look at the technical issues involved in getting remote computers to communicate with each other. As you know, the modem is the key device that lets the computer use the telephone system for data transmission. There are two basic types of phone connections: switched and nonswitched. Most phones work in the switched mode, which is also called POTS, for plain old telephone system. Pick up a POTS phone and you get a dial tone; dial a number and you are connected. If the line is busy, the dialer must continue dialing until a circuit is available. Once the caller makes a connection, the dialer "owns" the line until its disconnected.

Nonswitched, or so-called dedicated, lines are "permanent" circuits set aside by a phone company for a lessors exclusive use and therefore relatively expensive. Organizations that must have a continuous connection between two predetermined sites to transfer large amounts of data use dedicated lines. Such lines range in cost from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per month.

The third type of line is the integrated services digital network (ISDN), which just recently became popular. ISDN uses digital technology that speeds data roughly four times faster than the traditional analog lines of standard phone lines. An ISDN system can handle both voice and data transmissions simultaneously. While the technology has been slow in taking hold, its expected that by yearend as much as 90% of major metropolitan areas will have such lines available. ISDN lines require special digital devices that cost twice the price of standard modems. (Although they frequently are called modems, they actually arent; theyre switching devices that interface between computers and the phone system.) Also, the cost of an ISDN line is usually higher than a POTS line. However, prices are decreasing as ISDN becomes more available and the number of subscribers increases. Prices range from over $200 per month in many East Coast locations to less than $40 a month in California.

Once users select the phone system that meets their needs, the next step is to decide which is the best technology for their computers to transfer and access data between multiple sites. Lets look at the most popular telephone connection methods:

  • Bulletin board systems (BBS) were the first practical way to dial into remote computers. Many organizations set them up to share information with a limited group of users—usually customers, clients or in-house staffers. BBSs were popular because information could be disseminated without letting users access deeper into an organizations network. While their popularity faded as the Internet became more popular, BBSs are still used when security is a major concern. BBSs differ from the Internet because only people with the right phone number and password clearance can access them. Online services such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy take this a step further by providing forums in which people can communicate, download software and information and access databases.

  • Remote access is a way to connect one computer to another (for either downloading or uploading files). If the computers are nearby, its easiest to use a direct cable link between them. If they are far apart, the machines can be linked via phone line so they can access each others data resources and transfer the data quickly. Special software is needed to do the job. One of the most popular products is LapLink, which retails for about $130.

  • Remote control is a way for one computer to take over all the functions of a distant computer. This is done by linking the two machines, either through a network or dial-up phone lines and running special software at both locations. The computer in control transmits keyboard and mouse commands to the distant machine, which then implements these commands, sending back only the changes that were specified. This makes for very fast throughput and is a good tool for software support and maintenance. The roles of the two computers can be reversed. Remote control software also can be used to take over a group of computers for training purposes.

    Remote control is an effective way to access a network when the user is away from the office—but the office computer must be turned on and running the required software. However, software also is available to dial into a "sleeping" computer and turn it on or off from a remote site. Popular remote control programs are Carbon Copy, Close-Up, LapLink, pcAnywhere and ReachOut; they retail for under $150.

    Remote control has a drawback: Security can be compromised; after all, hackers have been known to gain entry into a remote control or a network system. An elegant solution is with dial-back software. Heres how it works: When a legitimate user wants to access a remote computer with dial-back software, she dials a special phone number, activating the software, which then hangs up on the caller and dials a pre-set phone number that connects the two computers. Once contact is made via the pre-set number, the caller has full access to the computer.

    If more than one person wants remote access to the network, an additional computer must be set up for each—an inefficient use of computer resources. To minimize this, multiple CPU (computer processing unit) cards can be set up within a computer so one computer can be used for two or more users. These cards require a separate modem and phone line for each user.

  • Remote node is another way to connect directly to a network via a phone. Since phone lines are inherently slower than cable transmissions, remote node is not the preferred way to transfer data. But because remote node is interactive, its good for reviewing and answering e-mail. Another advantage over remote control: Users dont need a dedicated computer to dial into the host site. Remote node users can call from any location and work as if they are in the office.

Data conferencing, which has been around awhile, allows two or more remote users to work on the same document at the same time. Thus, two accountants working on the same spreadsheet can each make changes to the same page at the same time and then see the changes take place. Workpapers can be reviewed very quickly and changes agreed on rather than being faxed or e-mailed back and forth. Data conferencing also can be extended to the electronic whiteboard—a sort of electronic blackboard (only its white) that has a built-in computer. It can transmit images (handwritten script, drawings, photos) in full color to a remote location. The smarter white boards even allow users to initiate computer commands by just touching icons on the display board.

Video conferencing, another emerging technology, allows users in remote locations to both talk to and see each other. Video conferencing has come a long way in the last few years. Today, a video system using ISDN as a phone link can be established for less than $2,500 per site using existing computers.

Wireless technology has moved forward in recent years at an amazing speed. At the simplest level, there are electronic pagers that allow users to send and receive e-mail messages of up to 250 characters. This can be valuable for delivering last-minute budget figures or plan changes. One vendor, Skytel, has a pager that provides nationwide coverage for less than $50 per month.

Remote communications technologies have improved dramatically over the past few years and are changing the structure of how people work. Corporate America has pushed the acceptance of remote computing, and it has become a strategic advantage. CPAs must learn and understand these technologies if they wish to remain competitive and succeed in the future.

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