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Expect More from IT

Is the IT industry doing enough to meet the needs of the accountancy profession, asks Eric Li

As a Provisional Legislator, and before that as LegCo's Functional Representative of Hong Kong accountancy profession, I have witnessed the evolution of our profession. One of the fascinating aspects of this evolution is the way accountants are integrating Information Technology (IT) to their work and to the important role they play in the community. Perhaps because the IT industry does not yet have its own Legco representative, I have often been asked to meet with some of the leaders of this industry, to participate in international conferences or to contribute my views to various IT publications. I have always tried to accept these invitations as I feel that the increasing role of IT technologies in our lives as well as their potential contribution to our well-being warrant our full attention and interest.

In Hong Kong, the IT scene is evolving rapidly and the HKSAR Government has indeed been very active in bringing about and in supporting many of these changes. The Policy Address of the Chief Executive for instance placed great emphasis on IT education and applications; it also underlined how IT could enhance Hong Kong's competitive edge. From his perspective I dare say that accountancy professionals have been keeping one-step ahead of our Chief Executive!

In 1994, under my chairmanship, the HKSA's Steering Committee on independent examination strongly advocated the full integration of IT in our future professional training programs. As President of HKSA, I also encouraged the expansion of the IT Interest Group. In 1995, I was the first Legislator to announce that I would put my Legco work on a web site in order to achieve 100 per cent accountability. To symbolize the growing importance of IT, I even titled the the English version of my newsletter: "Eric's bits and bytes". Since 1994, I have been, as you know, heavily involved in the reform of Hong Kong's political structure. I have given my full support to the establishment of an independent IT functional constituency and I have lobbied hard for this project. Hong Kong accountants have thus, over the years, fully supported the IT industry. Now that the IT functional constituency project has succeeded, I would like to share some of my views on what I feel accountants are entitled to expect from the IT industry in the future.

In this day and age, accountants of course simply cannot afford to ignore IT. Every practice, no matter how small, is now using IT products and incorporating in its operations. But finding IT products and expertise that are adapted to the particular needs of our profession and clientele remains a very real challenge. I am quite frankly, not certain that the IT industry is doing all it should to assist us in meeting this challenge. Competition is such that the IT industry must constantly find ways to fuel and maintain an ever-accelerating pace. We can all understand this. But the industry must also accept the fact that the particular role and responsibilities of accountants dictate a different pace to our profession and to our practices.

IT products change so fast that often before we can get acquainted with them, new ones are already being introduced. IT representatives seem to be much more interested in selling products than in providing after-sales support services and training to users. Even when maintenance services are offered, we often find that the technical expertise of providers is inadequate. The recruitment of staff with both IT knowledge and understanding of our business needs is another very real problem for accounting professionals. When such expertise can be found, it is often too costly for our smaller firms. Things are changing of course: university graduates are becoming more computer-literate so that the supply of professionals able to provide this kind of service will eventually grow and become more accessible. But we are not there yet and the IT industry must recognize the difficulties we are still facing.

We all recognize that our profession can benefit from IT in many ways. IT solutions will make our jobs simpler and easier. IT already enables us to share knowledge, to communicate faster and better even across different time zones. Voice recognition technology is a very important innovation that will help us overcome the difficulty of living as we do in a multi-language environment.

Before adopting such new technologies however, we must understand them and be very clear about what we really expect from them. If our only goal is to reduce costs, we should, I feel, remain extremely cautious. IT representatives and accountants do not share the same perspective. The IT industry will launch new products as soon as they "work" to certain degree. We must take more time to familiarize ourselves with such products. Quite often, by the time we find out their shortcomings, we are told that we must upgrade to newer versions if we want to address the very problems we have found. Of course, we are expected to pay for those new releases. More generally, our workload being what it is, there is always the problem of finding time to train very busy people on new IT functions.

When you are dealing in a service industry you should really be able to offer two very distinct types of service: the "quick fix" type, and a more personalised type of service which allows for discussions and interaction with clients. While it is sometimes difficult to quantify the benefits of IT in terms of exact monetary value, we must recognize that, from this perspective, IT will allow us to save time in some areas of our work and spend more of this time with clients. The "human touch" factor in our business will thus be increased significantly. In this sense, IT products enable us to become more efficient and competitive.

This said, accountants still have to invest far too much of their own time and efforts seeking out suitable training programs.. The response of the IT industry to our needs has been lukewarm at best.

In our daily operations, dealing with IT representatives still creates problems: Ideally, we should always seek to develop a real partner relationship with a consultant. He or she should become part of the team and have an inside view of our operations. I have personally found that it is well worth spending the extra time when establishing a new relationship with a consultant. In the long run, it is the only way that a willing and able consultant will be able to provide the type of quality service that even smaller companies can afford. I can only hope that IT representatives will be willing to play such a role.

If I chose to end my comments on the partnership requirements of our relationship with the IT industry it is because I feel that in a more general sense, this partnership between accountancy and IT , if it can be fully achieved, holds tremendous promise and potential. Such a partnership however deserves the total commitment of both sides. So far, the accountancy professional has obviously carried the full burden of adapting to IT technology. Isn't it time for the IT industry to start sharing some of this responsibility ?

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