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Information: getting it, using it

The only thing that has expanded faster than the role of the FD is the amount of information he has to manage.

The 16th Accountants and Financial Directors Exhibition, at the Barbican Exhibition Centre in London on 14-16 October, provides graphic illustration of just how much the finance function has expanded in recent years. Exhibitors include business travel companies, recruitment consultancies, government agencies and software suppliers, all testament to the many areas of activity that now fall under the financial director’s remit.

The accompanying programme of free workshops touches on topics as varied as electronic banking, time management and company cars, with a session from Godfrey Davis looking at the issues surrounding fleet planning and management. Travel specialists Maersk DFDS will unveil new research on business travel trends, while the European Commission will be attending the event for the first time to provide information about the impact on business of the single currency. Government agencies including Companies House, the DSS and Customs and Excise will also be present.

But the exhibition retains a strong focus on information technology, as an acknowledgement of the central role of computer systems in business today. It provides a forum where FDs can see and assess how such technology can help right across the spectrum of operations, not just the traditional tax and accounting arena.

Well known suppliers of financial software will be represented, along with companies such as Peutronics, a new arrival in the UK but whose accounting package has already claimed 28% of the Indian market. They will be joined by a wide range of suppliers showing specialist software tackling many spheres of activity.

“All companies are looking to find new ways of doing business and ways of making new relationships with their suppliers and customers. It is IT systems which have produced the means for them to do this,” declares Jon Choppin, who heads his own total quality management (TQM) consultancy.

“We used to think of computer products as some kind of add-on purchase, but that is no longer so. Every effective and efficient company in the future is going to be an IT company, and the FD has to be at the centre of this.”

In workshops, Choppin will be talking about how many companies now need to introduce change within their culture if they are to improve overall performance. That means explaining to staff how technology will help them do their jobs, but it also means getting employees involved with the business if it is to succeed.

“If you are empowering people to make decisions at the lower end, then clearly the people at the top need access to information about what is happening throughout the company,” he maintained.

As well as internal details on company performance, businesses need external information. Advances in technology mean a huge range of data is available via specialist providers, the Internet and CD-ROM products.

For instance, Infocheck Equifax offers business information services via a PC package called WinCheck. Users can download data such as company reports and credit profiles on the majority of limited and non-limited companies direct from Infocheck’s database to their PC. Infocheck also has an Internet site, which can be accessed using a credit or debit card.

Hard copies of UK company account details and annual returns filed since 1995 can be downloaded and printed from the user’s own PC.

Another exhibitor will be company information specialist RM Online, which has launched a website offering instant company searches for all UK-registered companies. And for those interested in overseas details, electronic publisher Bureau van Dijk has developed a CD-ROM database called Amadeus which provides detailed financial and business information on top European companies, also available from a website.

Many businesses take the view that the more information they can lay their hands on, the better. But what if that information becomes corrupted in some way, or falls into the wrong hands? This is an area which Mike Tansey, divisional manager of Russell Consulting, will be considering in workshop sessions: “Organisations need to think hard about keeping their data safe and secure. Lots of them pay lip service to the idea that information is now their most valuable asset, but if some of them sat back and analysed the sort of risks they are now taking they’d be rather scared,” Tansey maintains.

Desktop fax services, where a fax is sent direct from the user’s PC rather than from a dedicated central machine, demonstrate clear cost and efficiency savings. But they also leave a company open to security problems. Documents can be sent inadvertently to the wrong recipient, for example, which could breach confidentiality, or details may be altered in error.

Russell Consulting’s SecureFAX product allows for a flexible authorisation process before the fax is sent and then logs details of the sender, author, authoriser and recipient. An archiving system provides an unalterable back-up which can be used as legally admissible evidence, if need be.

“Using this product, companies are not sacrificing any of the efficiency or business benefits of a desktop service, but they must recognise that if information is wrong, or gets into the wrong hands, the consequences can be serious,” says Tansey.

One of the main reasons for cutting out the paperchase that used to be involved in exchanged documents is to cut down on cost. While early users of technology were looking simply to speed up business processes, much of the emphasis nowadays is switching to controlling costs. To take one example, ITIM Systems has a Corporate Expense Management System (CEMS) designed to help companies and individuals account for, manage and reimburse travel and entertainment expenditure.

“People hate doing expenses, so they tend to leave it to the last minute,” an ITIM spokesman explains. “Our system provides them with a page on their PC with all the headings laid out, so all they have to do is fill it in.

The system then handles tax and VAT details for them.”

Clandestine Software is another supplier who has taken a close look at where technology can add value to the bottom line. Its CS BookIt product, to be launched at the show, takes care of every stage of business travel, from concept to completion. Instead of waiting for the traveller to return with a pocket full of receipts, the software is designed to enable companies to tackle the issue proactively.

BookIt will create the travel itinerary at the outset, taking both personal preference and company policy into account when planning the trip. All expenditure is itemised and classified, including personal expense claims and expenses which need to be charged on to a client or another company department. Since much of the information is entered before departure, it is easier to fill in the necessary details on return. And the system highlights anything which should have been recorded but has been forgotten.

The system automatically generates information on items such as vehicle mileage, making the production of P11Ds easier, and handles VAT details and recharging lists. A version of the software designed for use on a laptop also includes a currency calculator.

“For many firms business travel and expenses is a significant item,” maintains Clandestine managing director Jessica Bunzl. “Lots of companies think they are handling it OK, but because it’s largely an invisible expenditure, many don’t know they’ve got a problem until it’s too late. Our software streamlines the whole process, making it more efficient and better managed.”

Finally, the exhibition offers hope to those who remain “techno-phobic”.

Suppliers Talkwrite will be launching a speech recognition package which allows users to talk at a normal speed. (Previous software required people to speak at an artificially slow pace.)

“This product offers independence to those who don’t like using a keyboard.

Now they can dictate letters into the PC when their secretary is away or they are in the office over the weekend, for instanc,” claims Talkwrite director Nick Stride. “And it reduces administration costs – even if someone else has to tidy up the document before it can go out, it’s usually 90% finished.”

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