As financial reporting has progressed from using carbon hard copies and one-write systems to Lotus Notes and eventually online databases, systems-related issues and problems have kept pace.

Varying degrees of user confusion and frustration inevitably follow any new technological advancement.

The disparate accounting software packages currently available are growing faster and more customizable all the time, but, according to a sample of business owners, CPAs and information technology consultants, basic key issues with integration, training and installation are a common thread of concern no matter how sophisticated the programs.

"The most frustrating thing is not getting your ducks in a row before rolling out a system," said Utz Baldwin, president of A/Dd/a Inc., a company that designs and develops automated systems like security and home theatres in Houston. "Real thought has to go into it beforehand."

By entering in the wrong preferences during set-up, Baldwin said that his choices came back to "haunt" him later.

Things were not posting to the system properly, and so he had to take time and go back to see what he and his team had done wrong.

Most small business users and their CPAs find the initial set-up in many applications easy - and that may be part of the problem. Without forcing users to contemplate their initial preferences or stressing the impact of these choices, these easy-to-build systems give small business owners very able accounting systems with very incorrect data.

Tommy Stephens, an associate and independent consultant for IT consultancy K2 Enterprises, voiced frustration at the initial set-up procedures accompanying some packages.

"They set it up wrong, and so the system keeps inaccurate books," Stephens said of one product. "It's a huge frustration for CPAs in the practice and a real problem for small businesses."

Once the application is running smoothly, the No. 1 frustration is integration. Users pointed out that on more than one occasion, products from the same vendor did not even communicate with each other.

Kandy Amerson, vice president of Changing Colors Painting in Montana, has used a number of accounting software systems for small businesses, and is satisfied with her current application. However, her enterprise resource planning system and her medical expense manager program cannot speak to each other, even though they are from the same software company. This causes her to waste time doing dual entry in her ERP system all the time.

"My medical expenses program integrates with my TurboTax," explained Amerson, "but I have to print reports and do double entry [in the master record]."

Matt Bowen, director of operations for JR's Sports Collectibles, a sports collection and novelty warehouse and online store, is one of many who has a communication problem between his Web store and his accounting software.

This is a potentially serious issue for JR's, as a particular product shown in stock on the Web store can actually be out of stock in their physical warehouse. This delay in communication between the Web store and the ERP system could have serious effects on the company's reputation, credibility and shipping needs, if the problem persists and people order out-of-stock items.

"We're fully integrated with Amazon.com, it's 100 percent data-transferable," Bowen said. "It's actually easier with them than our own Web site."

And while software companies are continually developing more, better and faster customer relationship management software, the time is still a ways off when CRM applications talk to each other as easily as co-workers do.

"CRM modules today all stink at what they do," stated Gene Marks, president of the Marks Group PC, a Pennsylvania-based provider of information technology and controller services. "A really good CRM, one that works with programs where you can enter in data one place and not worry about it elsewhere, doesn't exist."

However, no matter what improvements developers make, nothing is going to give a user great results if he is not trained properly.

Some of the users we interviewed felt that they were left to their own devices when it came to uncovering all the shortcuts and features that their systems contain, once their initial training is done.

"We're only using 20 percent of our system right now," admitted Matt Camden, chief information officer for UHY Advisors, a tax and business advisory consultant group. "There's so much more there that it can do."

And as systems move to the Web, new features will be added and even more training will be necessary for all those set in their in-house server ways.

While the move towards the Web is not going to cure all of these issues (nearly half of those interviewed are already using Web-enabled or hosted products) almost all agreed that the Web is where accounting software is headed. Some believe that the possibilities for accounting software are endless.

"The best products keep growing stronger, and are gaining more functionality," said Carlton Collins, president and chief executive of Accounting Software Advisor LLC, in Georgia. "Accounting software used to be just keeping the trial balance ... perhaps in the future accounting systems will keep track of security, the temperature in the building, company events - who knows?"

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