Apologies for those who are done to death by my ICAEW videos. I felt it was appropriate for readers to see and hear from users who talk candidly about their experiences, the issues they come across and the benefits they are getting. Chunking them into small pieces gives everyone an opportunity to decide what they wish to see. As I’ve said many times, it matters little what I might say, it is always the customer that speaks the loudest. Anyhoo…
I was surprised. The event drew more than 100 practitioners, academics and business professionals with an interest in SaaS/cloud. The Great Hall at Chartered Accountants’ Hall was full with standing room only. I liked the way ICAEW laid it out in groups of round tables. That allowed for a measure of intimacy that is unusual for this type of event. While I could not stay on for the networking lunch, reports filtering back suggest there were plenty of lively discussions.
One of the things I said that raised a few eyebrows is ‘Book-keeping is dead.’ Charlie Carne expressed the concerns of many small business practitioners asking what I meant and where does it go?
Modern SaaS systems are starting to use a combination of automated bank uploads and automatic allocation. Once a system knows what an entry means then it should be able to replicate that until you tell it otherwise. Charlie raised the legitimate point: What about cash in from debtors and cash out to creditors. Those can be accommodated. He also asked about purchase invoice entry. I fluffed the answer a bit at the time but on reflection, there is no reason why, in the longer term, SaaS solutions should not be capable of talking to one another and delivering automated updates. This was done through BASDAs eBIS-XML which has been around since 2002 – I think – but which got almost no commercial uptake beyond the public sector. Since SaaS solutions are going down the automated road far more quickly than on-premise applications, it makes sense for vendors to revisit eBIS-XML and see if this offers a fast track way to solve the automation of sales/purchase invoice entry. But back to my main point:
If you believe as I do that SaaS providers will get to near full automation within the next 2-5 years then it changes the professional landscape. The 70% of cost practitioners expend on double entry largely goes away. So what do they do to justify their existence? Mistakes are always made so sample checking will have something of a renaissance among those who trained in audit but have rarely put those skills to good use. That should be a value add because the practitioner can then concentrate on helping the client improve books quality. That’s step one.
I think beyond that, practitioners will have time to consider how they want to develop their practices. It could be for example they carve up the business into accounting ‘factories’ where volume is the name of the game and distinction drawn via service quality and speed to production. Mazuma is following this model albeit from a different angle.
They can then look at the 20% in the portfolio where they add value anyway and work on developing new or enhanced services that could fit to the growing business. This is where benchmarking analytics in SaaS solutions will help bring transformational change. As the practice observes clients growing, they can pro-actively reach out with new services that assist the business in new ways. In turn, that allows them to consider specialisation both functionally and across industry. This was something I toyed with 20 years ago but could not implement at the time. Today, I absolutely believe it is both possible and profitable.
Finally – a word of thanks to ICAEW organizers. As a regular conference attendee it is easy for me to become jaded but this conference seemed to hit most of the right buttons.
While the germ of the idea for the conference came from yours truly back in January, the execution by ICAEW staff is what counts and on this occasion was almost flawless. John Oates did a fantastic job keeping us all to time, to the point of kicking me off the stage when I started running over. That’s partly my own fault as I rarely practice presentations enough to ensure keeping to time. Richard Anning was rushing around making sure everyone was happy and the ICAEW ladies were their ever charming selves. As I have said before, the quality of questions raised was high and the nature of those questions entirely appropriate for practitioners and business people at this stage of SaaS development. I was in the ‘business’ section but I am led to believe the ‘professional’ section was equally engaging.
What could have been done better? I think ICAEW needs to think about where people are on the SaaS/cloud trajectory. The event attempted to cover a wide topic with broad appeal. To that extent it succeeded. But I think that for the future, it will be important to split events to cover different audience types. Despite the similarity of questions at all ends of the business spectrum, practitioners have different needs to those in industry and nuancing those aspects will help different audiences gain a better appreciation of how different solutions meet different needs.
The mix between vendors, consultants and users was about right and is a format I particularly like because it gives everyone a fair crack of the whip. When I originally mooted the idea, I wanted more end user sessions and in conversation with Richard Anning said I felt the conference could almost have gone a full day (with more users) and potentially workshops. Perhaps in the future. All in, I came away happy and from conversations I had with other attendees, most felt the same.
Last word: a thanks to Jeremy Roche, CEO FinancialForce. Like him, I’d just come off a near two week field trip and my main suitcase was heavy. Plus I’d injured myself along the way making the lugging of a large case around London Underground a tough job. Especially when you’re also lugging around 8 kg of video, laptop and other electronic gear in a backpack. Jeremy provided the ‘muscle’ between Moorgate and Farringdon. I owe him a couple of beers. Now I’m on a search for the next decent suitcase. The one I was using got destroyed this trip.