Over my 30-plus year career consulting on technology, I've encountered many mistakes my clients have made regarding hardware, software, and technology in general. As technology has become more integral and complicated, I've seen an increasing number of companies struggle with it. These problems aren't just minor issues; in many cases they could threaten a company's survival.
Consider these questions: Could your company survive a data breach in which your private customer data are made public? Could your company withstand a computer server crash that wipes out your accounting data? Could your company cope with a flawed accounting system that produces inaccurate inventory reports and financial statements?
In response to the growing complexity of technology, in recent years I've been conducting technology review engagements for my clients that are designed to ferret out serious technology problems and issues, with recommended solutions. My specialized brand of technology review engagement employs procedures based on several dozen workplans, questionnaires, and checklists, each focusing on approximately 30 specific aspects of a company's technology (such as hardware, accounting software, printers, internet, security, backup procedures, training, smartphones, cloud policies, password policies, file-sharing tools, etc.). In conducting these types of engagements, I've identified 12 common technology mistakes made by many of my clients; this article describes those common mistakes and offers recommendations for avoiding them.
1. Email messages are unencrypted
Perhaps the top security risk many companies routinely ignore is the failure to encrypt their emails. Some companies forgo email encryption because it can be costly and complicated, while others simply dismiss the threat as insignificant. This is a mistake. You should assume that every email message you send could be intercepted by unscrupulous people and bad actors. Without encryption, all your email messages are vulnerable.
Solution: Set up an email encryption system to protect all your email messages and attachments. One relatively easy approach is to use a free Google Gmail or Microsoft Outlook.com account, as these accounts automatically encrypt your email messages — but only when sent to other Gmail or Outlook.com users. Another approach is to purchase and install an email encryption system such as Trend Micro Hosted Email Security (starting at $27 per user per year) or Enlocked (prices range from free for 10 messages sent each month, to $29.99 per month for 10,000 messages).
2. Old computers are still used
It is common to find old computers lurking around most companies. This can be problematic because these older devices almost always lack new features, freeze up more often, and are slower at performing common tasks such as booting up, launching applications, printing, and surfing the internet. In addition, as we found with the WannaCry and Petya ransomware attacks of 2017, older computer systems can be more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Issues related to older computers can rob employees of productivity and put your data at greater risk.
Solution: Computers should be replaced frequently, perhaps as often as every three years, or within 12 months of each new Windows operating system release. Why so often? In my opinion, most computers typically have a "power life" of approximately three years (though the computer's monitors can have a much longer life span); after three years, newer, more powerful computer models are generally available. Also, new operating systems are typically designed to be compatible with the latest motherboard, chips, and video card technologies. As such, their performance on older computers can be inconsistent. A few signs that it's time to replace a computer system are:
- The computer is more than 3 years old, and a newer operating system is available.
- The computer takes more than 30 seconds to boot up.
- Excel or Word take more than five seconds to launch.
- The user complains of significant bugs, issues, or freeze-ups.
Not ready for new computers? You might be able to tune up your slower computer systems instead of replacing them, as suggested in the article "Boost Your Computer's Performance" in the September 2015 JofA.
3. Employees are not adequately trained
The most common problem revealed by technology reviews is that many employees are not adequately trained to use their technologies. You can ferret out these shortcomings rather easily simply by asking employees which features they use in common products, including Excel, Word, Outlook, Windows, and their accounting system. Based on questionnaires I've reviewed, many employees have never used key features such as PivotTables, the Subtotal command, or Grouping, Querying, or Mapping in Excel; Tables, Styles, Page Numbering, Columns, or Mail Merge in Word; default Signatures, Junk Mail Blocking, Meeting Requests, Rules, or the Convert Email to a Task tool in Outlook; or Indexed Searching, Voice Recognition, Disk Cleanup, or the Snipping tool in Windows. These examples are good indicators that those employees are not familiar enough with those products to leverage them for their highest possible levels of productivity.
Solution: After being initially trained in using the company's products, employees should receive continual, periodic "update training" on all the software applications they frequently use. For example, employees might receive two or three days of update training on Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Outlook in one year, followed by two or three additional days of update training on Windows, smartphones, and the company's accounting system the following year. Similar training classes should then be repeated every other year to ensure employees are well-versed in the software programs and hardware they operate.
4. Accounting system features are underutilized
Most reviews find that a company's advanced accounting system features are underutilized. As examples, invoices may be mailed instead of sent electronically, inventory needs may be calculated manually instead of being backflushed by the system, and automated sales price capabilities may be completely ignored. The result is akin to pushing a self-propelled lawn mower. This shortcoming is usually attributed to a lack of knowledge about using the system's more advanced features and functionality.
Solution: To ensure you are fully using your accounting system's capabilities, assign at least one employee the task of fully mastering your accounting or ERP system's full set of features and functions, and have this employee regularly share this knowledge with your team of system users. To bolster his or her proficiency, the designated accounting system guru should study educational training videos, YouTube clips, books about your accounting system, blogs, professional reviews, and the vendor's end-user support pages. In addition, he or she should attend the vendor's annual conference and annual end-user training courses.
5. Paperless systems are inadequately implemented
Often, a company's paperless systems are found to have not been fully implemented, as evidenced by stacks of papers, folders, and file cabinets in plain view. Paperless systems offer many advantages, such as ease in locating and sharing data, cost savings in storing data, easier copy and paste capabilities, and more reliable data backup. But in many cases, it takes a leap of faith for employees to fully commit the company's data to an electronic format. Some employees have a difficult time letting go of paper-based methods. As a result, your paperless system may not result in the paperless environment you intended.
Solution: To ensure your transition to a paperless office is complete, remove all file cabinets (perhaps to an archive location) and conduct "paper patrols" periodically in search of excessive papers or folders. As violators are identified, work with them to make a full transition to the company's paperless system.
6. Physical security is lacking
Particularly among smaller organizations, a company's physical security is often found to be inadequate. Specifically, the building's windows, doors, and door locks are low-grade products easily beaten by a determined criminal. Even worse, those buildings often lack security systems, or they employ security systems that aren't functioning properly. In many cases, doors accessed by keys have locks that can be easily picked, and no mechanism is in place to monitor who enters the premises. In some cases, current and former employees have lost their office keys, yet the company has not replaced the key locks and issued new keys.
Solution: Your building(s) should not be vulnerable. Steel doors, pick-proof locks (i.e., digital key locks), rugged windows, and alarm systems are a must. Preferably, you should install a digital key system that records employees as they enter the premises, and you should deploy alarm systems with high-resolution cameras that continuously record the view of all access points and key traffic points throughout the building.
7. Smartphones are underutilized
Many companies have little or no mobile device strategy. Of course, smartphones offer the ability to communicate via voice over a cellular network, but they are capable of much more. Smartphones can also be used to manage company email, manage calendars and to-do lists, provide GPS-based driving directions to traveling employees, connect to cloud storage for data access, accept credit card payments, manage contacts, access customer relationship management systems, track business expenses, take customer orders, provide customer service apps, and more.
Solution: Companies should prepare a solid mobile device strategy that ensures employees are as productive as possible while away from the office. This means identifying and installing apps and solutions on employee's smartphones and providing the proper training so employees fully understand how to use those apps. It may also mean setting standards for the types of smartphones used, providing employees with smartphones, or implementing an employee smartphone purchase plan in which the company covers some or all the costs of employee smartphones and the related insurance. Don't forget to establish security and policies to encourage safe and proper smartphone practices.
8. Cloud computing isn't used
Cloud computing has emerged as a more powerful and efficient platform for business than in-house servers or desktop systems. This is because data in the cloud are more easily accessible to employees, customers, and other authorized users. In many cases, cloud-based applications increasingly offer greater functionality compared with their on-premise counterparts. In some cases, cloud solutions are less expensive. In many cases, cloud computing is more secure compared to in-house computer operations that may lack proper physical security, firewalls, anti-virus solutions, or backup systems. Unfortunately, too many companies either embrace the cloud inconsistently or treat it as an afterthought.
Solution: Companies should prepare a cloud strategy and consider moving at least some of their computer applications and data to the cloud soon. As companies begin their transition to the cloud, they should hire or engage the appropriate IT technician(s) to ensure systems are installed, configured, and operated properly. Company employees should be trained to properly use the new cloud-based systems.
9. Work areas are poorly designed
In some companies, work areas and workstations are ergonomically lacking, which can hamper employee productivity. As examples, chairs may be uncomfortable, desk space may be limited, keyboards and monitors may be positioned at the wrong height, monitors may be too small, lighting may be inadequate, or persistent noises and interruptions may distract employees. As employee salaries are usually a company's biggest expenditure, it makes sense to ensure that employees are comfortable and well-equipped so they can achieve the highest productivity possible.
Solution: Examine employee workspaces with ergonomics in mind and invest in making sure employee work areas and workstations are adequately designed to encourage good health and higher employee productivity. To wit, employees should have comfortable chairs with wheels. Monitors should be larger and positioned high enough to promote good posture. Keyboards and mice should be correctly positioned so the employee's arms are parallel to the floor and do not rest on sharp desk corners, which could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome or other health issues.
10. Color printing is underutilized
Color printed documents, reports, proposals, and brochures often convey a better company image than black-and-white printed documents. Unfortunately, some companies underutilize color printing or have no color printing capabilities. Additionally, some companies use older color printers that require more expensive ink cartridges to be constantly replaced. As a result, these companies run the risk of coming across to their customers, prospects, and others as old-fashioned, or perhaps, less successful.
Solution: Companies should consider purchasing a color printer with high-capacity toner, such as the Epson WorkForce Pro ET-8700 EcoTank All-in-One Supertank Printer ($999.99 from Epson Direct as of November 2018), which includes up to a two-year supply of ink (according to Epson, based on average use). In addition to saving money on toner and labor related to securing and replacing toner cartridges, this printer can duplex print and serve as a fax machine, scanner, and low-use color copier.
11. Social media are underutilized
Many companies fail to leverage social media for marketing purposes. It is true than many people waste a lot of time and do a lot of inappropriate things on social media, but it is also true the major social media outlets offer access to billions of users — Facebook alone reports more than 2 billion active monthly users. Add to this the fact that in most cases a basic corporate social media presence is free and marketing opportunities are relatively inexpensive, and it's easy to conclude that it's unwise to ignore marketing via social media.
Solution: Companies should consider establishing a business presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, and other social media websites at a minimum, and exclusive deals and relevant marketing programs should be delivered through those channels. Of course, all marketing efforts should be tailored to mirror the style and panache expected in those media channels.
12. Websites are inadequate
Many companies have websites that are little more than glorified brochures online. In some cases, those websites lack useful content and are seldom updated. A company's website should be more than a mere online business card or four-panel brochure; it should offer a wealth of useful information to attract readers and potential customers and hold their attention. For example, a CPA firm's website should offer useful articles and videos on retirement planning, tax savings, investing, financial management solutions, wealth acquisition, protecting against identity fraud, etc. The website might also provide links to filing calendars, financial calculators, economic articles and statistics, case studies, a section for readers to ask questions, etc.
Solution: Add useful content to your website to attract the attention of readers and potential customers, update the content as needed, and add to that content regularly. Make sure to include interactive sections of your website to capture reader information, such as names and email addresses.
About the author
J. Carlton Collins, CPA, is an accounting systems consultant, a continuing professional development conference presenter, and a JofA contributing editor.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofAsenior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com or 919-402-4056.
- "Boost Your Computer's Performance," JofA, Sept. 2015
- Practitioners Symposium and Tech+ Conference at AICPA ENGAGE, June 9—13, Las Vegas
For more information or to register, go to aicpastore.com or call the Institute at 888-777-7077.
IMTA Section and CITP credential
The Information Management and Technology Assurance (IMTA) Section supports AICPA members who provide services in the areas of information security and cyber risk, privacy and IT risk management, business intelligence, and emerging technologies. CPAs may also pursue the Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) credential, which demonstrates an individual has the expertise to advise organizations on how to maximize information technology to manage their business. Access to the IMTA's tools and resources is included with AICPA membership. To learn more, visit aicpa.org/IMTA and aicpa.org/CITP.