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Mini-series Part 3: Digitalization and the accountant

In the first two parts of this mini-series, I discussed the definitions of (Part 1) and role of AIS (Part 2) in digitization and digitalization. In this third part, I would like to highlight the development of the role of the accountant in this regard. Digitalization is both boon and bane of the future accountant – on one hand, it helps further the minimizing of his/her involvement in the nitty-gritty daily grind, the “bean-counting” the end of which has long been heralded by the automation of accounting processes. On the other hand, though, it raises questions about the legitimacy of the role – in other words, are accountants still needed? It seems an inevitable development that more digitalization means less and less accountants are needed to perform the same tasks, both in scope and quality. In this highly interesting article published by the WHU in Vallendar/Germany, the authors highlight eight challenges that current and future (management) accountants might face when confronted with the digitalization trend. The video below helps as an executive summary of the article, but I highly recommend to have a good read – you will learn that the digitalization trend does not have to automatically mean the end of the (management) accountant – if they get proactive with the technology and concepts involved.

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The pros and cons of ERP systems in the cloud

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems like SAP, Oracle, or JD Edwards have been influencing business processes for the last three decades. At one point, however, the market was overly saturated, as corporate-wide systems like ERP were only affordable for large companies. For small and medium enterprises, ERP systems were unaffordable, and the value added (i.e. costs saved) through their use debatable.

With cloud technology in the mix now, ERP systems have moved to the cloud. SAP S/4 HANA, for instance, is an offering that runs on the cloud, seemingly providing the most powerful type of information system to businesses large and small. With all technological advances, though, the grass is not always greener. In his blog post about the pros and cons of cloud ERP, Forrest Burnson gives a comprehensive overview what factors should enter the decision-process when a company starts considering adopting cloud ERP systems.

Blockchain – a public ledger for all transactions

BitcoinBitcoin, the digital currency, has taken the world of financial transactions by storm. Its decentralized nature cuts out the typical financial intermediaries like banks or brokers, and is used directly between the trading parties. As such, it is not only used for purposes like enabling trade and financial transactions in areas where this is not possible, such as some emerging economies; it is not only useful to link people to trade that have not been able to even get a bank account to do so; it has also notoriety as the go-to currency for illegal activities via the Dark Web, such as gun or drug trade.

Foregoing its ambiguous nature, bitcoin can become (or already is) a powerful new financial reflection of trading that is not limited by barriers or financial intermediaries. From an accounting point of view, its decentralized nature begs the question how these are recorded, and how these records can be trusted. The answer is blockchain, a distributed database of of a continuously growing set of records (blocks) that are difficult to be tampered with, and that are clearly identified as to who and when did the transaction. In this blog post by Karlin Lillington, she describes the blockchain idea, and how this system of ledgers might supplant the traditional financial transaction system using financial intermediaries.

The impact of technology on the accounting and bookkeeping profession

In past blog posts, we have often talked about the impact of cloud technologies on businesses, especially small and medium ones. The anytime-anywhere access to information and data, the enabling of the paperless office, the real-time response rates and collaboration possibilities are (to put it simply) almost endless! In this blog post by Nicholas Pasquarosa, he details how accounting firms might change if they themselves move their operations and processes to the cloud. Not only does it support flexibility and speed of operations, but enables a direct link with their customers, especially if they are also “in the cloud”.

Old-school data security – the floppy disk is alive and kicking

Accountants have an inherent interest in corporate data, and as such, its security and privacy. In our book, we write about the newest technologies, including cloud computing, where we claim that the cloud can provide a measure of security to companies that the companies themselves would be unable to garner. However, not always is the newest technology the only way to go – in this article on BBC Tech, the author explains how the good old floppy disk, in spite of swan songs having been sung for decades by now, is still alive and kicking. Why is that? Why do organisations like the Pentagon or manufacturing companies keep using this seemingly outdated format? In short, the floppy disk has proven age-resistant, nigh impossible to hack (unless it is lost and found by unauthorised third parties), and usually found in systems that are very cumbersome and costly to update.

So it is one thing to appreciate the newest of technologies, but one should never forget or discard the old ones! As accountants, we should not forget that – for some businesses, it might be better to stick with the old.

What does the cloud actually look like?

When peers refer to “the cloud” in cloud computing, it often seems a vague and intangible concept. It seems “the cloud” is a place somewhere around us, above us, or far away, that does not have shape, size, or touch. However, the cloud is very much tangible, as this blog post by Emily Anne Epstein shows – instead of a fluffy white shape, the cloud is very much made of cables, servers, and housed in entire buildings.

Big data, real-time analytics and the accountant

We have often stated in this blog that the role of the accountant is changing. This change is heavily driven by new achievements in technology like cloud computing that enable anytime-anywhere access to decision-relevant data. At the same time, businesses acquire a plethora of data about their customers – so much data that professionals need the knowledge, skills and tools to excavate what is relevant, and what is not. As accountants, we should be in the middle of this “data excavation site”, handling this data mine to discover its treasures. This ACCA article argues that the finance profession (including accounting) needs to extend its reach and apply its core skills of gathering, manipulating and providing relevant information to a much larger data set. To enable accountants to do so, they will need to be the link between the IT department running the tools that enable real-time analytics of big data, and the business that needs to make sense of the results and put it in a strategic context. This will add skills to accounting that include data analytics and software engineering, leading to a hybrid role of accountants in the future.