With many accounting firms billing by the hour, lost time equals lost revenue, so keeping your IT network running 100 percent of the time is absolutely essential. I should know—public accounting was my career for eight years before I became the vice president of quality and service assurance at a network management solutions provider.
With both my accounting and tech hats on, here are my top five IT practices for accounting firms to keep their network infrastructure in the pink—or, rather, in the black!
Best Practice 1: Find a Reliable IT Provider
For an accounting firm, or really any organization, the question is not if your IT network will go down but when. An IT outage, whether it’s a glitch in a software application or a major infrastructure crash, happens sooner or later. Sure, a firm can do everything possible to mitigate the risks, but the IT hits the fan eventually. That’s why an accounting firm needs the dependability and reliability of a trusted IT services provider, a partner who will be there when you need them—quickly.
Best Practice 2: Keep Your Network Secure
All accounting firms handle critically important data; not just their own but also that of their clients. We recommend three tiers of data security protection:
Have a solid security infrastructure in place. These basic company-level network security recommendations should be heeded:
- Utilize an enterprise-level firewall, properly configured and frequently updated
- Utilize an Intrusion Detection Protection System
- Utilize state-of-the-art antivirus protection
- Immediately update your operating system, when updates are available
- Immediately update your antivirus protection, when updates are available
- Create a solid password policy for your organization that may have requirements such as:
- a minimum of six characters
- symbols and numbers in the password
- a change of passwords every 45 days
- dual authentication for system log-in
Educate staff. The weakest link in data security is human. Provide training to CPAs on best practices to maintain security. Individual users should always follow these fundamental security precautions:
- Don’t let a false sense of security lead to complacency
- Never respond to emails or downloads from sites you don’t recognize
- Beware of hidden file extensions
- Never blindly type commands that others tell you to type
- Never go to web addresses mentioned by strangers
- Never respond to emails that request personal financial information
- Type bank website URLs directly into a browser address bar
- Be vigilant!
Carry security risk insurance. Nowadays, almost everyone has health insurance and many people even have flood insurance. In today’s high-risk IT environment, accounting firms can add protection with insurance that covers issues and consequences related to data breaches. If a breach happens, the costs can be crippling to a business regardless of size—and a public relations nightmare. A modest investment in security insurance can pay huge dividends by helping to maintain business continuity and peace of mind in the event of a security lapse.
Best Practice 3: Provide Remote Access
Providing remote technology access to staff is becoming a must-have element for most accounting firms. Remember, accounting firms make money only when employees can log billable hours. During my accounting days, remote access from home or a client site was not commonplace. Snow days were especially miserable, because the next day would stretch long into the night to catch up on billable work.
Reliable remote access from home or a client site should be inherent in the IT infrastructure with an identical protocol for accessing the firm’s network at the office, home or a client site. The productivity benefits to employees and the business are obvious.
Best Practice 4: Communicate!
Accounting professionals must be able to communicate with clients and each other whether they are working at the office, home or a client site. In today’s business world where more and more work is being done online, it’s all about finding ways to communicate.
Internet-based phone systems—commonly known as VoIP, for Voice over Internet Protocol— allow employees to talk from anywhere, even on a mobile phone, using their direct office line. A standard instant messaging tool is also helpful. A desktop collaboration tool enables staff to work on documents together in real time.
Best Practice 5: Go Paperless
Huge files of paper documents are rapidly disappearing as accounting firms push toward the paperless office. Why? Because going paperless saves time and money. Scanning software is used in tandem with document management software. The good news is that specialty firms, such as Thomson Reuters and CCH, have solutions which offer paperless document management software for accounting firms.
Making IT Happen
To get the first four best practices underway, a cloud-hosted desktop solution is the key to make sure these requirements are done efficiently and effectively.
Accounting firms, after all, aren’t in the business of technology; they help clients handle their finances. The best way is to accomplish these IT-related tasks is to hire a partner who knows how to do these things for a CPA firm and will become a trusted extension of the organization. I’m talking about a full-fledged remote IT department, not just a consultant who comes in when something goes wrong.
One IT person usually doesn’t have expertise in all of these security practices. An accounting firm needs a group of dedicated professionals who are experienced in maintaining security, setting up communications, and providing for remote access. The smart money is on a cloud-hosted desktop solution provided by a trusted IT services partner.
Lourdes Ashamalla, who formerly worked in public accounting for eight years, is vice president of quality and service assurance at Network Alliance, Inc., a network management solutions provider in the Greater Washington, D.C. region.
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