National Simplicity Day: How to massively simplify your data collection

by
Keir Thomas-Bryant
July 12, 2022
A sign displaying the message, "Keep it simple"

National Simplicity Day falls on 12 July every year.

It marks the birth date of poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, whose values the day celebrates.

The intention is we meditate on how life can be made simpler.

In the world of work, there’s always something to which simplicity can be applied. In this article we look specifically at how data collection can be significantly streamlined.

Complexity arises because the information is in analogue form. Maybe it’s on a printed sheet of paper, for example, or perhaps it’s people talking in a meeting.

The key goal of simplification is to get that information into the digital realm as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

Doing this means the data goes from being random and messy, to being in a form humans can access, understand and sort through without effort. It also means that computers can process the data, of course!

What we’re talking about here is automation. And while there’s lots that can be done to automate and therefore simplify data collection, here are the four areas we look at in this article:

  1. Getting data from paperwork
  2. Note taking in meetings
  3. Onboarding new clients and customers
  4. Measuring mileage via apps

Getting data from paperwork

It’s a curious fact of life that, while everybody uses computers, businesses just love to turn their data into paperwork. They issue invoices, or receipts following a purchase, and so on.

They say money makes the world go around, but really, it’s paperwork!

Subsequently getting the data from the paperwork and into our own systems can be a challenge.

It is getting better. A business might email you the invoice or receipt, or issue a PDF you can download. But the data is still isolated and disconnected from your systems.

How we do it now

Manual data entry from paperwork is the norm, and it’s perhaps one of the worst drudge tasks people face in business.

Gathering together the paperwork can be a huge hassle before you even begin the task, and then it must be checked, sorted and assigned correctly once it’s been keyed-in.

In short, it’s tiresome and complex.

How to simplify it

Apps like AutoEntry are the magical solution. You may have heard of optical character recognition (OCR), but AutoEntry is several generations beyond even that level of usefulness.

You can snap images of paperwork with your phone, or scan it while in the office, and the data will not only be correctly and accurately extracted from each line, but the system can be trained to automatically assign it to the correct accounting ledgers. It can even suggest the correct VAT codes, and more.

What about if the data is contained within emails or PDFs? No problem. Just forward the email or PDF to your AutoEntry email account, and it will again be extracted. Or upload them to AutoEntry by logging into your account.

AutoEntry can even be configured to fetch regular documents from banks or suppliers.

Note taking in meetings

Taking notes in meetings helps everybody understand the key points after the event. It aids decision making and accountability.

Because of this note taking should be mandatory, and indeed it effectively was until a decade or two ago.

Alas, it’s become a lost art, perhaps because the days when teams employed staff such as administrative assistants have gone.

And in the very old days, somebody specially trained in shorthand would scribble notes, leaving a verbatim record of what had been said. This could be referred to in future.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get back to those days?

How we do it now

If notes are required then a participant in the meeting can volunteer to take notes, but it means they can’t really take part fully.

There’s also the issue that the notes at the end are only as good as the person making them.

The person could be constrained by the speed they can type at, for example, and could simply miss key points if the conversation speeds up.

What they note down can also be limited to what they think is interesting, rather than creating an objective record.

How to simplify it

The solution is online transcription services like Otter.ai.

This can transcribe live, and with a high degree of accuracy, even getting punctuation correct and differentiating between speakers. It can be used while the meeting is happening (e.g. Zooms or Teams calls), or a recording can be uploaded to it at a later time

The transcription appears live and anybody in the meeting can highlight important sentences of paragraphs in what has just been said. These are then collated into a summary at the end of the meeting. Additionally, Otter.ai will automatically pick out summary keywords, making it easy to compile notes of the themes and topics from the meeting.

A similar although not quite as sophisticated feature is built into Microsoft Teams. This creates live meeting transcriptions and is also clever enough to differentiate between speakers.

Onboarding new clients and customers

Finding new clients can be automated thanks to customer relationship management software like Salesforce.

But following this there’s the requirement to discuss fees and then onboard the new client or customer, typically via proposals and engagement letters that lay out what you’re going to be doing. This can be a very labour-intensive and complicated process.

How we do it now

You talk to potential new customers and clients, and outline what you can do for them. If they show interest, you then create a personalised proposal—and inevitably chase them up about it later.

Once they agree, you might require them to fill in forms with their details, or you might do this manually over the phone.

You then create a personalised engagement letter that you send out. When the client inevitably doesn’t send it back, you have to chase them again.

If you sell further services later, you need to repeat this process.

How to simplify it

Using software like GoProposal, accountants can vastly simplify the process of creating proposals and subsequently sending out engagement letters. In fact, these steps can even be done live during any meeting with a client if they feel they’re ready to proceed.

Using this kind of software means you and your team can sell more confidently, price consistently, and minimise risk, too. You’re able to manage the scope of the work, to avoid the dreaded client scope creep.

Measuring mileage via apps

Knowing the amount driven is required when working out tax reliefs, while increasing environmental legislation puts a focus on this too.

How we do it now

Most of us scribble down the before and after reading from the odometer on either dedicated log sheets, or in a jotter we keep for the purpose. But don’t forget to record all the details HMRC requires and then keep it for the required period!

Of course, sometimes we forget to make these notes and so effectively pay for the journey from our own pocket.

Furthermore, we tend to record whole miles, and perhaps the 10th mile reading, ignoring any further fractions of a mile. As a result, we fail to record quite a lot of mileage over months and years.

How to simplify it

As they say, there’s an app for that.

Apps like MileIQ or DriversNote run on your phone in the background, making use of the GPS/mapping feature to know both when you’re moving at car-like speeds, and also where you are (so it doesn’t record your drive home, for example).

Even if the app should somehow fail to record your mileage (maybe you leave your phone somewhere, for example), you can use it later to plot the route on a map and work out the mileage that way.

You can even input the rate of relief (e.g. 45p flat rate) and it will both work out how much you can claim, and produce reports that HMRC finds acceptable.

Conclusion: Make your working life simpler

Making life simpler has never been a waste of time. Doing things more efficiently frees-up time for other tasks, and often removes the difficult and repetitive tasks most of us dread.

All the tips above involve better use of technology and this is no surprise, given that technology has been simplifying our working life for around 50 years now since the first computers arrived in the workplace. Yes, there can be a bit of a hump to get over as processes are adjusted—but in every single case, the efficiencies and simplicity delivered has been worth it.

The smart individuals who tend to succeed are those that spot these technological offerings early, and adopt them ahead of the curve. Why follow when you can take the lead?

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