One day a few years ago, I was handed an archiving list. It was a routine event. As I was marking files for destruction however, one set caught my eye. It was for a complex estate that had caused me considerable grief. One stroke of a pen would – and did – consign all of the paperwork to history. I remembered that pen stroke again recently when thinking about how technology constantly changes what we do and how we do it, rendering once-routine tasks (and once-prized skills) redundant and massively reducing the time some tasks take.
When I took on the case that caused me so much grief, it was described to me as “pretty straightforward”. The late Mr X had been a very wealthy but very private man, who kept the information he shared with others – even his advisers – to a minimum. We needed to prepare estate accounts, which involved identifying his assets, liabilities and business interests. The family lawyer said that he had collected the paperwork I would need from the house and would let me have it. I had not expected him to arrive with a small van, packed absolutely full with boxes of files and loose papers. My heart sank. Where to even start?
One of the best pieces of advice
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was that almost no-one sets out to make a mess of their filing. They might not use the method that you would choose, but if you can ascertain their system, you have a framework to navigate by. Having looked in the boxes, I couldn’t see any system at all and even if there had been one, it would have been lost when the papers were boxed and put into the van. So, I set myself a method: first, go through each box in turn and extract anything that was irrelevant or out of date to reduce the volume; second, try to organise what was left into entities (properties, businesses, bank and investment accounts etc). That exercise took me many days, but gradually the random jigsaw came together, revealing individual elements as well as interconnections.
One letter I found early on intrigued me. There was a reference to some properties and to a trust about which the family lawyer, to my surprise, knew nothing. The properties were clearly substantial and I guessed that Mr X may have had an interest in them via the trust. But how to prove that? Nothing in any of the papers I had seen by the end of the first week gave me a firm link to follow up. At the beginning of the second week, I found a short note that reinforced my suspicion, but again it gave no clue about where to go next. I needed more. And as is so often the way, I found it in the very last file, in the very last box that I opened. And because I was by then pretty fed up with the task, I nearly missed its significance. I couldn’t see the tree in the forest.
Virtually impossible to delegate the task
You might be wondering why on earth I didn’t delegate some of this. That’s easy to answer: I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for (and as I have said, when I found it, I nearly missed it). It would have been virtually impossible to delegate the task without running the risk of missing that vital piece of information.
Tax technology has the potential to transform mundane tasks, increasing both efficiency and profitability
So why did the case come to mind when I was thinking about tax technology? Because it made me realise how different the exercise could be now: I could delegate the time-consuming task of going through the boxes and get someone to carefully capture every document using an OCR enabled scanner. With the information contained in the physical documents digitised, I would then be able to search on key words. And having found my tree in the forest I could cut and categorise information in different ways: chronologically to see the timeline, by tax year for the outstanding tax returns or by entity for valuation and other purposes for example. I would also have a structured set of digital files, enabling me to share relevant documents securely with other professionals involved in the case. My time would be dramatically reduced leaving me free to do other high-value work and – equally importantly – ensuring that when I did turn my attention to the task that my skill-set was really needed for, I would be firing on all cylinders.
Such technology did not exist when I trawled those dusty files, but it does now, bringing with it the potential to transform mundane tasks and allocate valuable time and resource far more effectively, increasing both efficiency and profitability.
The critical professional skill was then (and remains now) knowing what to look for – and that still needs a human being. Far from making that skill redundant, the right technology can make it even more valuable.
Paul Aplin OBE is a well-known writer and commentator on tax and technology issues and has won several industry awards, including the Outstanding Industry Contribution Award in the 2013 British Accountancy Awards and the Lifetime Achievement Award in the 2021 Taxation Awards. He spent many years as a tax partner with an independent West Country firm advising a broad range of personal and business tax clients. Paul was appointed OBE for services to the accountancy profession and public service in the 2009 Birthday Honours List.