The shoebox and spreadsheet have been business tools for a long time. Filling in a daily ledger and keeping track of paperwork is foundational to business administration, as is staying on top of payroll and human resources.

Accounting, payroll and HR are the three administrative legs on which every business rests. You can have the greatest ideas, the best salespeople and the hottest marketing, but if those three legs aren’t present, the company will collapse.

Yet though there are good digital services to manage these, many small and medium-sized companies remain stuck in the past.

“There are many reasons why smaller businesses have held back from investing in technology,” said PJ Bishop, Vice-President for Partners, Accountants & Alliances for Africa & Middle East at Sage. “Perceptions include that accounting and payroll software is expensive, reluctance among older employees or business owners to adopt new systems, and a lingering belief that you need to be an accountant to use these tools.”

The SaaS revolution

Instead, many businesses still fill in spreadsheets, collect receipts in shoeboxes, and hand those over to an accountant to prepare. They don’t realise that modern software services automate and streamline those processes, induced by the enormous changes from cloud computing and its leading light, software as a service (SaaS). SaaS almost needs no introduction: this is easy-access, consumption-based software provided through a cloud platform, such as Office365, Gmail or other solutions.

PJ Bishop, VP – Partners, Accountants & Alliances for Africa & Middle East, Sage
PJ Bishop, VP – Partners, Accountants & Alliances for Africa & Middle East, Sage

“SaaS has been a game-changer in terms of the accessibility and affordability of business software for companies, from the one-person micro-business to scale-ups and mid-sized companies,” explained Rezelde Botha, Business Unit Manager at Axiz. “There are no annual licence fees or upfront costs, meaning that companies don’t need to spend capital upfront to afford a powerful, modern business solution.”

Astute business operators will have noticed these tools in some capacity, be it a file sharing service, a mail service or an online CRM. Yet they fear that administration involving payroll or accounting is too sensitive for such online services. It seems safer and more in control to keep that information close at hand as a locally saved file or physical storage.

This is a mistake. Statistically, leading cloud service providers offer better security than most companies could realistically and affordably muster on their own. Also, the same security flaws that might compromise an online service, such as stealing login details, are more often deployed against businesses.

Real business visibility

A further benefit is that you can gain greater visibility or what’s happening across the organisation, said Bishop: “An integrated platform offers the business owner or the finance team end-to-end visibility into business data and performance. Integration also means less need to recapture data – for example, when payroll and HR are integrated, data such as employee details can be shared across functions such as payroll, hiring, onboarding and retaining talent, and statutory reporting, without the need to capture it in separate systems.”

All the data is accessible to the right people. An accountant, payroll administrator, operations chief or financial executive can log in to view current and historical business data, from any device with an Internet connection. Unlike the spreadsheet or shoebox, this data isn’t static. It can be captured live through processes that extend to relevant users – even customer-facing portals – and be analysed using analytics and artificial intelligence tools on the SaaS platform.

And SaaS offers a particular perk: as new features are added, the paying users get access. Upgrades are not limited because you bought last year’s software.

Start adopting modern administration tools

To gain these features can be simple. You can sign up to a service with a credit card or even try out a free trial first, and pay monthly based on your usage and number of users. Yet, while it is tempting to chase the lower costs and thus adopt a SaaS solution quickly, Bishop advises against being so rash: “For a smaller business with a couple of users and basic needs, purchasing a SaaS solution might be as easy as signing up online with a credit card. But, do your homework first – read reviews, speak to other small business owners about their experience, and perhaps sign up for a trial period to evaluate the solution. Companies looking to deploy a SaaS accounting or payroll solution should start off with a business case that outlines the benefits they hope to achieve. Look at how it could improve agility, enable you to reach new customers, transform your workforce or streamline business continuity and information security.”

This all sounds great, but what about the risks? Security aside, adopting new software and digital systems is costly. There are concerns about user adoption, aligning processes and the new system, buying new equipment to support the software, and so on. Fortunately, cloud and SaaS can start small and scale as the business grows comfortable with its new capabilities.

“You can start out with a cloud solution that enables instant, professional online quoting and invoicing software, and then graduate towards a full accounting and payroll solution,” said Botha. “Large and more complex businesses can opt for a modular business management solution, start with the basics like financials, then add other modules like distribution or logistics or solutions from independent software vendors that extend the functionality of the base product.”