Real time collaboration: The sky’s the limit with cloud computing

Whether we’re simply storing music and photos, checking our bank account or working on more advanced business applications, most of us will have some experience of using the ‘Cloud’.  Rather than storing data on PCs in our home or office, we send it to remote servers, from which we can access it at any time.

Accountancy may not have been one of the first and most obvious areas to benefit from Cloud computing, but firms and their clients are increasingly adopting this new way of working – finding it to be extremely flexible and versatile.

The main advantage is that professional advisers can access clients’ accounts in real time and provide up-to-the-minute advice and guidance, rather than relying on outdated year-end data. Bank statement information can be automatically integrated, which reduces processing time and makes accountancy more seamless and integrated. And businesses, of course, are able to free up space on their own hard drives.

A common model is to take out a software subscription which allows ongoing access to the service. It needn’t necessarily be that expensive and it means that you and your accountant are able to interrogate data whenever you please from any location. In some cases, this might even mean the use of an app that can be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet. It’s often possible to get training through seminars and webinars, although if you’re already moved beyond Excel spreadsheets and are familiar with accountancy software, there shouldn’t be too huge a leap involved.

While traditions die hard and many accountants have yet to move over to the Cloud, it’s certainly worth discussing the options. Two of the big-name players in the small-business market are Xero and KashFlow, which was acquired by IRIS in 2013. Sage is, however, also on the scene and has the advantage of being a very well-established multinational with major brand recognition. There will probably be ever-increasing choice available as the market continues to evolve.

What are the potential pitfalls? Well, security is obviously a concern for everybody, but in a world in which we quite happily bank from our smartphones and pay with our credit cards online, we’re already placing a great deal of trust in sophisticated encryption software.  Is it really that much of a leap to share accountancy data too?

Another issue that frequently comes up is ownership of the information held in the Cloud. You should check terms and conditions of any contract to ensure it’s quite explicit that you retain the intellectual property to your data. At the same time, you’ll obviously be granting the supplier a licence to use and store the data for the purpose of providing their service.  It’s a trade-off that most people would probably feel pretty comfortable with.

A hotter legal question is perhaps where your supplier chooses to store the data. Some accountants and clients might prefer to know that the host servers are based in the UK.

All in all, there’s no doubt that the convenience of being able to access your accounts at any time from any location. And the ability of your accountant to access the same data will increasingly mean that you can get more precise and meaningful advice exactly when you need it.

Derek Grant CA MABRP

Partner