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Mobile Grows In and Out of the Office

David Stenseth, Stenseth Samuelson & BoesePerhaps it is time to stop talking simply about mobile offices and talk about portable offices. Mobile implies users venture away from their facilities and are able to stay connected to the firm's computer system via email and the Internet. Portable means practitioners carry the same devices, particularly tablets, out of and around the office.

There's a good reason for this, according to David Stenseth, president of Woodbury, Minn.-based Stenseth Samuelson & Boese. Like many accountants, he uses his iPad as he moves around in this office. Stenseth attributes the need to the paperless office – and the most effective way to view documents is to add monitors, especially during tax preparation.

"We use three monitors and an iPad," says Stenseth. Since there are five workstations with three monitors each and two more with two monitors each (including the receptionist), the desktops get crowded. He uses the iPad at his desk because, "We need every bit of space."

As many firms know, the use of tablet devices is not limited to out of the office. But the multiple monitor phenomenon is only one factor driving the use of mobile devices within the tax and accounting profession. And the number of devices is exploding.

A Pew Research Center survey, taken in May, shows that 34 percent of Americans own a tablet computer, compared to 18 percent a year earlier. As of the same month, 91 percent of American adults have a cell phone, 56 percent have a smartphone. As of January 26 percent of adults own an e-book reader. The level of smartphone use among young people is even higher.

Research by IDC shows that smartphone ownership by those ages 18 through 44 is even higher, 79 percent. Another important demographic is ownership of mobile devices via income. One study shows that 56 percent of those with annual incomes of more than $75,000 owned tablets as of August.

And the growth is accelerating. Gartner predicts that this year, mobile phones will overtake PCs worldwide as the most common device for accessing the web.

But to what extent do accountants use mobile devices for more than routine electronic communication? That's an especially important question since the understanding of the mobile use of office applications has not yet emerged because vendors are still grappling with what those applications should do.

"We do use mobile technology (smart phones and Kindle Fire HD tablet) for more than sending texts and e-mail and browsing the web," says Ann Donley, owner of Profit Maximizer, a Richlandtown, Pa.-based firm. "While those things are important, especially responding to client e-mail in this day and age of everyone wanting instant responses, they are only a small part of mobile technology use for us."

Donley visits up to four different retirement communities to prepare tax returns for clients. She connects to the firm's software suite - CCH Axcess Tax, Practice and Workstream modules - on her laptop.

She also uses Go To my PC to log into her desktop computer to access prior year source documents or other documents. And the ability to perform these services from the road is a big boost to customer service.

"Our older clients really appreciate this service. They definitely feel they are getting the same attention that they got when they were able to come to the office," she says. Donley has picked up clients at retirement homes because of this service and administrators these facilities provide residents with her business cards if they ask questions about tax preparation.

The Laptop's Role
While the discussion of mobile computing usually centers on tablets, not laptops, laptops still have a role in work on the road. Roman Kepczyk, director of consulting services fort Xcentric, provides a guide for when to use a laptop.

"If you are out of the office one day or more you should use a laptop," he says. Since Kepczyk depends on remaining billable while traveling he generally uses a laptop – and he recommends firms buy only solid state devices – he limits the amount of time he spends on a tablet.

"My iPad is only used for movies on the plane on the way back from engagements," he says. 

No matter what device is involved, mobile usage is increasing among both practitioners and end users. And that includes nonprofit organizations, which have often been strapped for cash for upgrading technology.

Krista Endsley, CEO of Abila, says companies that buy both its fund accounting and fundraising products are actively using mobile devices to utilize those application. The company, formed early in 2013, markets products that were part of the former Sage Nonprofit Solutions, including MIP Fund Accounting and Abila Millennium Fundraising.

MIP Mobile launched in June with basic e-requisition and balance checking functions. The company has since added the ability to run custom financial reports with drill-down capability as well as access to native and customized reports that can be run directly out of the full product.

"Customers are using the application to check account balances and budget balances, run reports, review and approve/deny e-requisitions and perform database maintenance functions," she says.

Abila has had more than 600 downloads of MIP Mobile and Endsley says the company has seen a 10-percent increase in downloads since its user conference early this month.

On the Millennium side, customers utilize the mobile version to view data about constituents and to enter and update data when constituents contacted. Mobile functionality had existed for more than 10 years as a view-only option for a subset of users. But in September 2012 it was made available to all users.

"Based on feedback from the recent conference, I would estimate adoption rate at about 40 percent of existing customers," Endsley says.

The Security Issue
But for every device, there seems to be an equal an opposite risk. And while using tablets and smartphones is great, they represent significant challenges to firms in terms of device management and security particularly at organizations at which Bring Your Own Device is the way firms provide mobile access.

Addressing those issues starts with written and signed policies, says Randy Johnston, partner with the consulting group, K2 enterprises, and the Network Management Group. When it comes to polices, Johnston says his organizations have an inflexible stance.

"We require everyone to sign the policies relating to BYOD, and that includes partners," he says. "Without a signed policy, there is no connection to our system and no reimbursement for purchasing devices."

Johnston recommends firms not buy devices for employees. Reimbursing staffers is a better way because it transfers the liability for such problems as lost devices and data from the organization to the employee.

NMGI has a policy that Johnston says is more comprehensive than those available elsewhere. Among the points is that users are required to turn on password/passphrases. They should define what users can have on devices used for business. Encryption must be enforced and there should be training policies.

Johnston warns risks go beyond threats to data. That includes stress on employees and issues involving productivity. As mobile use has spread, employees work more hours. That has raised employee stress levels and Johnston also says that studies show that error rates rise significantly in work done after 7 p.m.

For employees subject to these trends, "We are going to have to learn how to help them manage these stresses," he says.

Bob Scott
Bob Scott has provided information to the tax and accounting community since 1991, first as technology editor of Accounting Today, and from 1997 through 2009 as editor of its sister publication, Accounting Technology. He is known throughout the industry for his depth of knowledge and for his high journalistic standards.  Scott has made frequent appearances as a speaker, moderator and panelist and events serving tax and accounting professionals. He  has a strong background in computer journalism as an editor with two former trade publications, Computer+Software News and MIS Week and spent several years with weekly and daily newspapers in Morris County New Jersey prior to that.  A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Bob is a native of Madison, Ind
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