|STEVEN P. LIPTON is a director of Williams Young LLC, a CPA firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He leads the firm's information technology practice. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .|
A story often told at professional gatherings is about the accounting firm that decided a few years ago not to install a facsimile machine because it considered it a useless high-tech gadget, until one day a major client asked the firm's managing partner for his fax number. The next day the manager ordered a fax machine.
The irony now is that, with the Internet and with facsimile software available for most computers, the standalone fax machine is becoming somewhat of a dinosaur.
While the story may be apocryphal, the message was clear: For years, accounting firms were reluctant to keep up with technology, and when they finally acquired some high-tech gear, it was more out of embarrassment for being behind the times than because they recognized a need to keep pace with business progress. More recently, however, accounting firms and CPAs in business and industry have cast off that image, in many cases taking the lead in applying new technology.
This article offers advice on how to plan for the office of the future, and while you're at it, to design today's office, as well.
THE VIRTUAL OFFICE
The first step in setting up an office of the future is asking whether physical office space is needed. In some cases, a virtual office makes more sense; that is, an office housed wherever the accountant is working: at home, in a car, at a client's office. Maybe the office should be a combination of a permanent physical space and a virtual space; in other words, a work place that provides total flexibility, where it's possible to support telecommuting, hoteling (where multiple staffers share a desk and office) and the conventional office where workers congregate.
The key: A successful office provides a way for the entire staff to do their jobs efficiently and enables those who need or have information to share it in a timely way.
The traditional office is neither dead nor seriously waning. Many organizations and people still need a physical office, especially to hold meetings. But with today's technology, even meetings with remote attendees can be held in a virtual environment using an Internet television connection.
How, then, do you plan an office of the future?
Like any other business decision, the planning begins with analysis, which starts with two key questions: What business am I in? Where is that business going?
Getting answers to those questions involves determining the following:
- Who are my customers and where are they?
- What's the best way to communicate with them, and them with me?
- Where is the best place for my staff to work?
- What do they need to do their jobs?
- Will they travel?
- What kind of information do they need and must it be delivered in real time?
- How will I answer these same questions 1, 2, 5 and 10 years down the line?
Planners who wrestle with such questions should understand that, while technology will provide most of the tools to operate tomorrow's office, they need a clear vision of their business before they can frame the blueprint for that office. Without the vision, all the new technology is just a collection of expensive toys: That may be the most important insight you will get from this article.
Before getting to the technology specifics, one more point: All the high-tech tools of tomorrow's office eventually will work as a team, linked and controlled by a computer. So, as you plan, don't think of electronic equipment, such as fax machines and telephones, as separate instruments. Instead, seek out equipment designed to either work together now or to eventually work in tandem with other high-tech gear. In the long run, such a mind-set will result in an office setup that will speed your organizations work and make it more effective.
THE LESS-PAPER OFFICE
When the personal computer became popular in the late 1980s, an oft-heard prediction was that the business world was on the threshold of the paperless office. Today, however, that threshold is more cluttered with paper than ever.
Two obstacles have stood in the way of the paperless office: the lack of (1) convenient, powerful and easy-to-use software that translates images into a digital format and (2) document-handling software that manages documents and provides a way to locate and access it.
Until recently, the software for translating scanned documents into usable text was ineffective, very expensive or both. Often the time spent cleaning up such a document equaled the time needed to recreate it from scratch. Today's software provides a more reliable process, so consider adding scanning technology to your office. Its use may be limited now, but in a few years, or maybe even less, it may become an indispensable tool that will usher in the paperless office.
On the hardware side, companies such as Xerox have introduced a digital document center, a sophisticated machine that looks like a copier but does lots more. For example, put a document of text or graphics into the Xerox machine and it makes a digital snapshot of the document that can be edited, faxed, photocopied or transmitted to any number of people via a local area network, a wide area network or the Internet or intranet. And it can be stored safely and compactly as a digital image. While the $25,000-to-$30,000 price range of such a high-speed Xerox digital copier may be beyond the reach of many small organizations, a wide assortment of low-cost scanners and software is available for small-volume jobs, such as all-electronic handling of invoices and purchase orders, a small but significant step toward the no-paper or, at least, the less-paper office.
THE DEATH OF DIALING
To appreciate the speed and impact of technological changes, consider that many young people today don't understand the meaning of the title of the classic film Dial M for Murder . While the rotary-dial telephone is history in all but the most rural communities, the telephony revolution runs much deeper than the demise of the phone dial.
Even telephony is becoming an anachronism. The Internet, although it runs over phone lines, soon may replace the conventional phone system. The Net increasingly handles much of today's fax, voice phone and data-transmission traffic, and it's likely to become one of the main communications links. In only a few years, the cellular phone has transformed voice communications, making its users available no matter where they happen to be.
Recognizing that dramatic changes in office communications are imminent, and, frankly, not fully predictable, how can you plan for tomorrow's office? The key is to stay flexible. Here are some advisories:
- It's probably wiser to lease rather than purchase your telephone system. Leasing sets a fixed life for your office equipment, forcing you to evaluate new capabilities periodically. Aim for as short a lease contract as possible. Because of the growing competition, prices are shrinking as services and extras are growing.
- If you're buying, set your depreciation schedule to no longer than five years.
- Consider a digital phone line. The integrated services digital network (ISDN) is a cost-effective phone link. For Internet connection and data transmission, it's four times faster than regular analog phone lines, and there are no busy signals. Early this year, many telephone utilities were unprepared for the avalanche of ISDN orders. Some installations were backed up for months; many phone utilities were not technically ready for the rush of business. However, the backlog for most has been reduced, training on ISDN installation is now well under way and prices are getting even more competitive.
- If you haven't ordered a cellular phone, move on it now. While still a little pricey, the communications flexibility is worth the extra few dollars. But don't be quick to decide between digital and analog. While digital is far better for voice clarity and speed of data transmission, some geographic areas lack good digital service. If service is poor in your area (or the area you travel to), you have two choices: Either get an analog-only cellular phone or get the more expensive dual-service phone that can switch between the two, depending on which is available; the latter is a wiser choice in most cases.
- Should you drop your regular phone and replace it with a cellular phone? Not yet. The day may come soon, but neither the technology nor the commercial service is quite ready for that.
- If your organization is very small, consider telephone services such as Wildfire (see An Electronic Receptionist, JofA, Mar.98, page 96) and Connex (see Alternative to Traditional Voice Mail, JofA, Sept.98, page 114). They replace voice mail, receptionists and call forwarding, among other things. They may be costly, but they are efficient and therefore cost-effective.
- A growing trend is to link voice mail and e-mail in one mailbox. To do that conveniently, you need to coordinate the technology through your computer. For example, to create a unified mailbox with a telephone system, you may be required to use a particular e-mail product such as Microsoft Outlook or a particular operating system such as Windows 98, NT or Novell 5.0.
- If you have one or more distant offices or areas you call frequently, consider ordering a virtual private network (VPN) from your telephone utility. While VPNs aren't as fast as dedicated phone lines, they are far cheaper and are quite effective as communication links for sharing documents in real time and e-mail exchanges between offices.
- Investigate with your phone utility the possibility of installing a primary rate interface (PRI) service. PRI is a dedicated line between your office and the utility, which means you don't pay for individual local calls because the line is leased to you. A PRI allows you to route all your calls across this single dedicated line. Your phone utility can do the analysis of your calling history and projections to determine the services cost-effectiveness.
- While cable television companies are beginning to provide Internet connections using their huge bandwidth fiber-optic cables, most cable services are still being offered just for home use, not for business. If you're lucky enough to have such a service available in your area, sign up for it; it will provide instant access to the Internet and blinding-speed downloading.
- Beware of super-bargain prices for local and long-distance calling services that some of the newer phone utilities are offering. While you'll likely save money short term, recognize the bargain for what it may be, that is, yesterday's technology. Stick with the more established utilities. Also, examine the utility's services and support carefully before signing on, checking with business customers that are currently using them, and seek to keep the terms of your contracts as short as possible so if a better service comes along from a competitor, you can easily upgrade to the better service.
COMPUTERS AND NETWORKS
The heart of your office technology is your computer system. Planned correctly, it can do more than handle the conventional computer operations (word processing, e-mail, spreadsheet and tax preparation). It can, and probably should, be linked to your phone system to provide a single mailbox for both your e-mail and voice mail. It also should be set up as a network to link all the computers in your operation to a central data bank.
For maximum functionality, you would be wise to limit your computer system to a single operating system. While there are several operating systems on the market, unless you're involved in computer development work or have special business needs, it makes no sense to buy an offbeat system. For most users, either Microsoft or Novell works well. I suggest to my clients that in most cases they would be wiser to stick with Microsoft operating systems (either Windows 95/98 or NT) because they are so widely used and work well with the various Microsoft applications. That is not to imply anything negative about Novell's network operating system; it's a fine system and in many ways equal to Microsoft's. Our choice of Windows 95/98 or NT is based mostly on the wide use of Microsoft applications and the wide availability of support. Of course, if the consulting organization that provides technology support for your enterprise is a Novell specialist and you're satisfied with the work, it's probably prudent to stick with Novell.
with an increasing number of people working outside the office, it's wise to provide remote access to computer files in the office and the main database. There are several excellent remote-access software products on the market, such as pcAnywhere and Carbon Copy. Such software allows users to telephone the office from their remote computers and then literally operate the office computer as if they were in the office.
As you can see, there's a lot to do to prepare your office for the future. Obviously, it can't be accomplished in one step. But, at the very least, while you can't implement the changes all at once, you must plan for them in a unified way. There is little room for ad hoc, independent decisions. The planning must be coordinated to be sure that all the pieces work as a team.
And recognize, like it or not, that tomorrows technology also will change, which means the best you can do is plan for no more than three to five years into the future. But that's better than not planning at all.