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A realistic approach to the paperless accountant

By Rich Preece*

'Paperless' was a buzzword not so long ago and was championed from all tiers of the business hierarchy. Corporate social responsibility teams were talking about the environmental impact of losing reams of paper circulating inside offices. The management angle was that swapping paper for digital would dramatically improve efficiency and productivity - and in turn drive revenue. And CIOs focused on how digital would help organisations be compliant in a world of increasing data regulation. But despite the hype, the reality is that only one percent of EU businesses have achieved a paperless office.

The benefits for accountancy are obvious. It's a notoriously paper heavy industry so removing it would have a big impact on sustainability, efficiency and compliance in the sector. Added to of this, it would give practitioners the time and head space to work more collaboratively with clients, enabling a service that is based more on consultancy than administration.

So what's going wrong with the paperless movement and how can accountants find a solution for their practice?

Firstly, 'paperless' is extremely difficult to implement. It takes time, effort and strategic thought - a total realignment of the culture of business administration. This is often unrealistic. In the rare cases it has been achieved, it's by practices that have the resources, time and patience to create a granular strategy. But not every accounting firm has the bandwidth to be able to do this.

Be realistic - aim to become paper-light and immediately the mission becomes much more manageable. It's about using less, and incrementally implementing a range of often simple initiatives to reduce the load - this is the first shift in mentality that will help lessen paper use.

Secondly, a significant chunk of a paper-light strategy can come from replacing paper with tech. But hardware on its own is not the answer. The assumption that tablets, smartphones and policies like Bring Your Own Device are the makings of a paperless office is wrong. There's no doubt they engender workplace efficiency and productivity. But equally, paper has been marginalised ever since we've had PCs, email and basic software - all of which have been a fixture in the office for some time.

The way to take advantage of this development in hardware is to look into the software that's paired with it, particularly cloud based software. The cloud takes the burden of traditional accounting processes, meaning for example, there's no need to sift through the client shoe box of receipts and manually enter them into a desktop based accounting platform. It also helps reduce time heavy frustrations like human error because good software is built to have intuitive parameters that won't allow you to progress with a task until details have been completed properly.

Thirdly, core to the success of cloud is the development and proliferation of specialised apps. Much in the same way that the Apple revolution was founded on the success of its associated apps marketplace, businesses are increasingly seeing the opportunities in contributing to online ecosystems with bespoke offerings.

The success of application add-ons in accountancy, such as Receipt Bank, for processing receipts and invoices, and PaySuite, for the automation of payroll, can only be positive for a paper-light approach in accountancy. Also, as these apps are optional add-ons, accountants can customise and tailor their solution to their specific needs.

Across all sectors of business, organisations are acknowledging the business benefits of 'paper-light' - some faster than others - but the general trend is clear to see. In the financial sector for example, Gartner, an American technology research firm, predicts that by 2016 more than 60 per cent of the world's banks will process the majority of their transactions in the cloud.

Accountancies in particular have much to gain from reducing paper. Those firms that address it with a realistic approach and enlist the help of technology will see benefits throughout the practice. This might be in the form of sustainability or compliance, but it's most likely to come though efficient working which in turn releases resources that can be directed into consultancy-based activity. Either way, it's worth having a paper-light approach to running a practice.


*Rich Preece is vice-president and UK country manager at Intuit


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