The panic in the lady’s voice was hard to miss. She had a VAT return to complete and file with HMRC in a matter of days, but all of her book-keeping data had ’gone’. Gone as in completely un-recoverable from a laptop PC that had been left sitting on a coffee table at her home when the property was flooded in a flash flood. Fortunately she’d left the original paperwork back in the office at her site. The monthly ’Z’ reports were easily obtainable from the POS system. And the purchase invoices for the last few months were still sitting in the office, waiting to be filed. A few days’ work and she would be able to compile a reasonably correct VAT return, albeit one that would be missing some of the detailed information from petty-cash transactions that had been recorded on the PC. Immediate panic over, but more headaches and hard work to follow.

extra expense

The real hard work would be needed because the laptop contained more than one VAT quarter’s financial data. There had been 15 months’ worth of book-keeping entries since the previous year-end file had been handed over to her accountant, so she had lost the accounting records for a full financial year as well as the subsequent quarter.

The obvious question was "What about the back-ups?". Yes, of course, she had saved some data to a flash drive (memory stick) a couple of times during the year, and a search through the office revealed three such devices lying around in various places. The bad news was that none of them contained anything more relevant than some payroll information. Someone would have to go through all of the paperwork on site, and try to reconstruct all of the book-keeping entries. Not impossible, just very time consuming, not as accurate as the original work, and ultimately an avoidable extra expense.

Now this tale of woe brought home just how much ’IT’ has changed in the small business environment over the years. And particularly how casual we’ve become about these ubiquitous devices that are so central to everyday work. While some readers will say that this particular individual was careless and that it’d never happen to them, can they really be so sure?

In days gone by

Go back to the recent past, and the office PC was a collection of large boxes sitting in the corner of the office. These were plumbed-together by cables and usually surrounded by lockable boxes full of ’diskettes’ or CD-ROMs. In most cases, the last thing done each day was to take a back-up of the work, and put the disk into a safe location away from the machine. This back-up routine was something that had been ingrained into computer operators from the 1950s. They had to make daily back-ups because their machines were so fragile and unreliable that there was a very high probability of losing the unsaved data within it when the monster had one of its frequent ’crashes’. Restoring yesterday’s data from a saved tape was often the first thing that computer technicians did every morning in the old days right up to the 1990s! Fast forward to 2012. The old beige boxes are long gone, and many small business operators keep all of their data on a laptop or tablet PC that basically works 24/7 without any faults.

The portability allows people to take work home with them. After all it’s much more pleasant on the kitchen table over the weekend than having to go back out to site!

Casual working

This casual working can have disadvantages as we’ve seen. Laptops are prone to theft, as well as drowning, and the sheer reliability of modern equipment has made users much less conscious of the need for back-up copies of their records. Consequently there’s an unfortunate tendency to put all of their record-keeping eggs into one rather vulnerable basket.

Fortunately modern technology offers a solution in the ’clouds’. There’s really no need to keep accounting records, or accounting software on any particular machine any more. No need to buy and install expensive software that requires regular upgrades or updates. There are numerous online accounting and book-keeping systems that actually ’live’ on remote servers in secure environments with full emergency recovery systems. These online systems also force users to ’back-up’ data in real time as they work and they require nothing more than a reasonably fast broadband connection to the internet, so the clerical work can be done almost anywhere. And if the PC that you happen to be using gets stolen, or destroyed, no problem. Everything you’ve put into the system up until the last time you logged-off is still available to you and your accountant.

These systems have been around for a few years now and are used by many national retail chains. However, we do find that many smaller retailers seem unaware of them. This seems to be the case most often among the retailers who run three or four sites, with all of their clerical work done in a traditional office, using accounting software that they probably first installed a good few years ago. It’s all still installed on the office PCs and all of their records are in one place. Chances are that when the older clerical staff retired a couple of years ago, so did the old habit of making secure back-up copies every day.

So resist the temptation to feel smug. If your book-keeping and accounting is still based on ’back-office’ software sitting somewhere on your own desktop or laptop PC, check whether you have recent (yesterday’s or last week’s, not last year’s) back-up data somewhere secure. Then think about how modern the software itself is, whether it’s still supported by the manufacturer and how much an update to the current version will cost. Then talk to your accountant about moving your book-keeping and accounting into the 21st century into the clouds.