Armed with a laptop, iPad and iPhone, Jennifer Katrulya, chief executive officer of Danbury, Conn.-based Business Management Resource Group, hits the field each day to remotely serve her clients. These days her location isn't the most important factor when it comes to getting the job done - it's all about her arsenal of mobile technologies.
BMRG is an accounting advisory and mentoring firm that offers services to both CPA firms and small-to-midsized businesses. Since its establishment in 2004, BMRG has provided services to several hundred accounting firms and companies.
"We have been working with clients remotely since the beginning in terms of being cloud-based and fully mobile. The shift was that we always worked with our clients remotely but we either came to an office or I couldn't travel much for work or go to conferences," Katrulya said.
Today, thanks to mobile technologies, the geographic constraints have been lifted and the firm's associates are able to truly work from anywhere at anytime. "Everyone has a standard set of equipment [laptop, iPad and iPhone] that they all receive, and then we don't really care whether they are working from home, an office or Starbucks, as long as the work is getting done," Katrulya said.
With the advent and popularity of such mobile technologies as smartphones, tablets, mobile apps and cloud-based software, accounting professionals are increasingly going mobile - a notion that was foreign just a generation ago.
In fact, according to research data provided by Intuit, more than half of accountants (59 percent) currently use a smartphone, and of that number, 80 percent use it for work and personal use. Tablets, with iPads being the most popular brand, are used less (27 percent), likely due to their relative newness. In the coming years, the popularity of both is expected to rise. By 2013, it is estimated that tablet use will double, and eight out of 10 accountants will be using a smartphone.
This trend is already playing out at accounting and consulting firm WithumSmith+Brown, where each of the 350 or so professionals working within the firm carries a smartphone (typically an iPhone) and a laptop, said Jim Bourke, a partner based in the firm's Red Bank, N.J., office. While the firm does not supply iPads, professionals are partially reimbursed by the firm if they buy one.
With the rise of mobile technologies, however, comes the question of how best to use them in business and which emerging technologies, whether it is hardware or software, can best help firms serve their clients and grow their business.
One could argue that being mobile really starts with having the proper hardware in hand, literally. And, as many mobile professionals have discovered, there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to this new way of doing business.
THE RIGHT TOOL FOR THE RIGHT JOB
Many mobile road warriors agree that smartphones and tablets ( with iPhones and iPads being the most popular) are best suited for consuming information, rather than generating content, in large part because of the smaller screens and lack of a typical keyboard. For example, smartphones can be great for reading e-mails. Tablets, while not functional devices for audit or tax prep work, can be used to read e-mails, review reports and keep abreast of industry news.
When it comes to generating content while on the road, the laptop reigns superior in the minds of most. This is especially true as more ultra-thin laptops hit the market.
"What I think is practical is the next new step in smaller computers. If you take an ultralight or an ultrabook computer and use it as your remote tool, then now you are using something that is about like having a regular portable computer," said Randy Johnston, executive vice president of Network Management Group and K2 Enterprises. Examples of such include the ASUS Zenbook and HP Folio ultrabooks. "If you take a tablet, plus a keyboard, you have more weight. So you can have a lighter experience with an ultralight or you can have a slower, clumsier experience with a tablet and keyboard."
Roman Kepczyk, director of consulting for Xcentric LLC, a cloud computing and technology consulting services company based in Alpharetta, Ga., echoed that sentiment. "The new ultra-portables will allow us to carry very thin laptops - less than one inch that weigh less than three pounds - and have eight-hour battery lives (won't have to carry a spare or power cord to every place). When combined with the latest MMT2 Monitor (for dual in the field) and Internet access through a smartphone/MiFi, we will have a very mobile platform to work in the field," he said.
Kepczyk noted that Intel touted 12 models of the new ultra-portable computers at the 2012 International CES held in January. He further suggested that, "Firms need to use tools like [Windows Terminal Server]/Citrix/Remote Desktop to make applications available remotely, and tools such as Citrix Receiver to bring it down to tablets and smartphones. With the right technology, it doesn't matter what PID (personal Internet device: laptop, tablet, smartphone) they use, so the employee can pick the best tool for the application they are accessing - smartphone for reading e-mail, tablet for reviewing reports, and laptop for doing engagements."
Citrix Receiver is client software that enables access to enterprise data, applications and desktops from any computing device, including smartphones, tablets and PCs.
MOBILE APPS EVERYWHERE
As accountants increasingly go mobile, vendors are recognizing that these road warriors need even greater access to information while on the go. To help meet that need, vendors are hitting the drawing board to add an array of mobile apps to their portfolios.
One such example is CCH. In November, the company launched its Tax News Highlights App on CCH Mobile. The app, which is available for free download onto iPhone, iPad and Android devices, lets users track updated federal and state tax news on the go. The app builds on the 2010 release of CCH Mobile, an extension of CCH's IntelliConnect tax research platform that makes the content and tools available via mobile devices. Subscribers can access CCH's content and tools via IntelliConnect through the CCH Mobile application, which is available for iPhone, iPad and Blackberry mobile devices. The delivery of IntelliConnect on Android devices is in development. CCH project manager Tina Rajski said that in early or mid-summer it would further enhance the functionality to include such features as a keyword search.
"We are currently working on mobile apps that will provide key functionality across the ProSystem fx Suite (SaaS) platform. We have worked closely with customers to determine which features are most important in a mobile environment, so these apps will provide key functionality ... . We recently made our entire CCH IntelliConnect research platform available on the iPad and we are developing new mobile publishing applications particularly optimized for tablets," added Brian Steinert, CCH director of product management - workflow.
CCH user David Schneyman, who is a tax principal with CPA firm Friedman in New York, likes the fact that he can get a head start on his day by checking the latest tax research news on CCH Mobile during his train commute into work. While he heads into the office each day and views his mobility as being able to tackle work during his commute to and from the office with the help of a smartphone and iPad, the firm strives to make it easy for its professionals to work from home, if necessary, and uses Citrix to make applications available remotely.
Schneyman said that the firm is also looking to implement a cloud-based document management system. "We feel that is where the future is, especially in a multi-office and mobile environment," he said.
For its auditors in the field, the firm has supplied them with a second monitor for greater efficiency. As of the end of 2011, the auditors are now armed with a laptop and a small, portable monitor, Schneyman noted.
WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
Bloomberg BNA offers a handful of mobile apps - including, but not limited to, BNA Mobile Highlights and Quick Tax Reference Guide - so users can access news updates, procedural data, and industry intelligence and guidance from their mobile device.
The BNA Mobile Highlights app features a custom display of BNA e-mails, with editorially selected news and analysis highlights with embedded links to full articles and a publication search. The Quick Tax Reference Guide app makes tax information available whenever practitioners need it. "We find that, for our products, people just want remote access to their publications, which they are accessing through their mobile devices such as iPads or their laptops," said George Farrah, executive editor of tax and accounting for Bloomberg BNA. "CPAs have always worked remotely on the auditing side, but on the tax side more and more firms are working remotely, so we are doing things to provide people remote access to our library of information and we're also doing apps to push information to them [via mobile devices]."
Looking ahead, Farrah said that Bloomberg BNA is developing additional apps, but noted that it was too early to disclose details.
Thomson Reuters has been hosting online applications for more than a decade, but the vendor is undoubtedly taking note of the fact that practitioners are increasingly going mobile and are arming themselves with mobile devices to get the job done.
In 2010, it launched Mobile CS, a practice management mobile app for tax and accounting professionals that ties into its practice management product.
Looking ahead, Christina Kellerhals, project manager of Web services and mobile for Thomson Reuters, said that in late spring it will launch an app for firms' clients to access their client portals. CPA firms will be able to brand the app if they choose. "It is building that brand connection between the client and the firm," Kellerhals said. Also launching in late spring is an app for the employees of the firms' clients, so the employees can check pay stubs, enter time sheets, etc.
Kellerhals said that Thomson Reuters is also developing an app for its GoFileRoom document management system as its next app after the spring releases. It is aiming for a release at the end of 2012.
In October 2012, ADP launched its first app, Run Powered by ADP Mobile Payroll, which enables small businesses to manage payroll anywhere, anytime, from their iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android or Blackberry device. The app is geared toward small-business owners, which undoubtedly can include smaller accounting firms that are striving for increased efficiency and convenience when running payroll within their firm. "Our understanding of CPAs is that they are all about efficiency and doing things quickly. So, if they are an ADP client, they can take advantage of ADP for their own firm with [RUN Powered by ADP]," said Sal Hazday, vice president and general manager of specialty products at ADP Small Business Services.
More recently, the app functionality has been expanded so employees can now access their HR, payroll, retirement savings, and time and attendance via a mobile device.
It should also be noted that, for its accounting partners, ADP offers access to the accountant.adp.com portal, which offers professionals 24/7 access to accountant-specific tools and resources and continuing education.
THE SAAS CONNECTION
Brian Crofts, a mobile strategy leader at Intuit, said that users are requesting connectivity to Software-as-a-Service via apps on their mobile devices. This has given rise to companion apps, such as a companion app for Intuit Tax Online and the Intuit Online Payroll mobile app that synchronizes with Online Payroll for Accounting Professionals.
When it comes to cloud-based solutions, Intuit is now piloting Intuit Quickbooks Online Accountant. The new Web-based solution will help accounting professionals prepare and reconcile accounts, review client data and find and correct errors, enter and track adjustments, and help clients with business planning using comparison reports.
Intuit has also developed Intuit Practice Management. The Web-based solution has cross-system integration so users can view client data and updates from Lacerte and QuickBooks in one place, and offers an engagement dashboard for managing all engagements in one place, and streamlined time and billing.
Bill.com can help accountants streamline the entire client bookkeeping process, including helping clients with bill payment and invoicing their customers (accounts payable and accounts receivable), via its Web-based solution. The next-generation bill management service views accountants as an important part of its business. "It will move them into a different class of what they can do when it comes to advising and serving clients," said Bill.com founder and CEO Rene Lacerte. "I think mobility really does complete the offering for accountants to say, 'I want to be an advisor to my clients and serve them anywhere.'"
About a year ago, Bill.com developed a mobile app so users can log onto Bill.com from any mobile device. With Bill.com Mobile, users can review bills, make secure payments and invoice customers.
Katrulya of Business Management Resource Group has been using Bill.com for about three years. "Where Bill.com comes in for us is that it is fairly easy for us to create a standardized reporting process or transaction process so every client we handle very much the same way," she said, noting that the firm also uses QuickBooks in a hosted environment, as well as Intacct. Both QuickBooks and Intacct synchronize with Bill.com.
"The biggest benefit [of being mobile] is that we really can be easily accessible to our clients while still growing as a company and doing what we need to do, attending conferences and networking with our peers," Katrulya said.
Security of client data is always a top priority for accounting professionals, but when it comes to mobile technologies, ensuring that data is secure becomes even more critical.
Harvey Metro, a partner at Olney, Md.-based MetroMetro & Associates, said that he is typically outside of the firm doing consulting work with clients and carries an iPad, a smartphone and a laptop to work remotely. Metro recognizes the importance of taking security measures to protect client data, so everything is password-protected. For example, all of the files are password-protected before they are dropped into an online file storage system called Dropbox.com so Metro can access them remotely. To send data to its clients, the firm uses its client portal, instead of e-mail, given the security risks.
Bourke of WithumSmith+Brown also stressed the importance of setting up a password when using a mobile device. He also suggested that iPhone users download Find My iPhone, in case they lose the device. Find My iPhone enables people to locate their iPhone on a map, display a message or play a sound to help find it, set a passcode lock remotely, and protect important information with a remote wipe to restore the iPhone to its factory settings.
Meanwhile, CCH's Steinert recommends that firms establish a defined mobile policy, stating "which devices can be used, can employees access company resources with their own devices, and what should the criteria be?"
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