Culture shock - the synergy between IT and accounting

Culture shock - the synergy between IT and accounting

These days any high school careers counsellor can tell you that accounting and IT is a sound discipline mix, especially in the recent graduate job market. However, according to Information Synergy managing director Warren Johnson, IT and auditors have traditionally represented vastly different business cultures.

In the mid 80s, after graduating from what was then an uncommon mixture of Computing Studies and Accounting at university, Johnson went where he felt his skills would be most prized - a chartered accounting firm, which has since been swallowed up into the Pricewaterhouse group. "I chose chartered accounting because I thought that it was the best way to access both [IT and accounting] areas," commented Johnson. He found, however, that his role was squarely focused on accounting, with only a little IT on the side.

Feeling stifled by a "bean-counting" business culture which was at best weary about new technologies and at worst totally adverse to technical innovation, Johnson took on a role as a consultant with the fledgling Information Synergy, a small Melbourne-based company focused on introducing IT solutions to the accounting industry. At that time Information Synergy operated from a small house in Doncaster. Today, they are still based in Melbourne, but have offices in Hawthorn and a staff of 20. Johnson now manages and owns the company he helped establish.

For Johnson the initial attraction to Information Synergy was the company's philosophy, which aimed to combine accounting knowledge with developing IT solutions.

"I wanted to practice the skills that I had trained for in a less rigid environment than chartered accounting; nowadays accounting firms expand their horizons much more - we're talking about generations ago in IT terms."

According to Johnson, Information Synergy has found its niche in marketing accounting IT solutions rather than specialising in a specific aspect of IT services. "We have a number of informal relationships where we're able to provide an IT consulting resource that our clients can access without endangering their customer base," explained Johnson. "[Our clients] tend to be small firms and we don't get too close to their inner workings. I think it is fair to say that the smaller accountants are still afraid of the whole IT thing, and are looking for a reliable outside resource they can refer IT issues to without losing their client to a larger accounting practice offering IT services. We have no interest in taking over the taxation consulting or audit service from anybody else, so certainly from that angle we're not a threat."

In 1989, seeking financial stability and a more solid business base, Information Synergy approached accounting firm Mann Judd with the view to forming a partnership. "Information Synergy was going through the normal cycle of startup businesses where everything begins with a lot of enthusiasm, followed by the gnashing of teeth and a lot of worry about keeping the momentum going. We wanted to form something that's a bit larger and a bit more stable," said Johnson of the company's early years. Translation: Information Synergy was experiencing cash flow problems.

Although he was only involved as a passenger, the new partnership brought Johnson face to face with some of the cultural problems he had previously encountered. Once again, he found himself attempting to educate auditors and tax consultants in the ways of IT consulting. Nonetheless, Johnson described the partnership with Mann Judd as strategic for both parties. "Mann Judd had no in-house IT consulting resources and we felt that there was an opportunity to broaden our own client base and give us a much more solid foundation. There was a captive market of Mann Judd clients."

Four years later, Mann Judd and a more mature Information Synergy parted ways. Johnson and former Synergy partner Adam Reynolds purchased Mann Judd's interest in Information Synergy and set about expanding Information Synergy based on Johnson's own ideas regarding the IT consultant's role in providing accounting solutions. "When we take on a new client, in eight out of 10 cases it involves the installation or implementation of an accounting solution or accounting distribution solution," said Johnson. This process can include everything from the installation of LANs, computer hardware and so on, to the effective implementation of software. "Our accounting focus is on systems accounting, which is not complex accounting, but is certainly outside the range of many IT professionals because they see their role as simply solving the technical side, rather than providing a total solution to the client's satisfaction," said Johnson. "We do understand the debits and credits side of business - we are actually able to talk intelligently with accountants."

As managing director of Information Synergy, Johnson attributes much of the company's success to its focus on the recruitment of recent graduates. "While our eyes are not closed to other opportunities, we have had great success with recruiting dual discipline graduates from a number of tertiary institutions. These guys and girls come into Information Synergy with very good sets of skills which we aim to build on; in fact our longest serving consultants all come from this background."

This interest in dual discipline graduates has led to Information Synergy sponsoring an award at Monash University in Melbourne, for the highest achieving graduate in the accounting and IT disciplines. However, according to Johnston, finding staff and keeping staff require different tactics.

Johnson describes Information Synergy's philosophy to keeping staff as a mixture of "sensible salary decision making" and in-house programs that look after both the physical and emotional well-being of employees. "I do recognise that our consulting staff are our life blood, I wish to provide the working conditions that make them happy to come to work most of the time. We aim for an environment where each person has their own responsibilities and is able to have an influence on their own work environment," Johnson explained.

These tactics appear to be working, with Information Synergy establishing a relatively stable workforce in an industry widely recognised for its highly mobile personnel. Ultimately, Johnson attributes these kinds of achievements to an ethos unusual in the corporate sector. "I'm not a hard-nosed person, I like to see that our business succeeds and continues to succeed, but that's not at all costs. There's a fairness factor that has to come into all decision-making processes."

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