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|This article possibly contains original research. (December 2010)|
An accounting information system (AIS) is a system of collection, storage and processing of financial and accounting data that is used by decision makers. An accounting information system is generally a computer-based method for tracking accounting activity in conjunction with information technology resources. The resulting statistical reports can be used internally by management or externally by other interested parties including investors, creditors and tax authorities. The actual physical devices and systems that allows the AIS to operate and perform its functions
Initially, accounting information systems were predominantly developed “in-house” as legacy systems. Such solutions were difficult to develop and expensive to maintain. Today, accounting information systems are more commonly sold as prebuilt software packages from vendors such as Microsoft, Sage Group, SAP and Oracle where it is configured and customized to match the organization’s business processes. As the need for connectivity and consolidation between other business systems increased, accounting information systems were merged with larger, more centralized systems known as enterprise resource planning (ERP). Before, with separate applications to manage different business functions, organizations had to develop complex interfaces for the systems to communicate with each other. In ERP, a system such as accounting information system is built as a module integrated into a suite of applications that can include manufacturing, supply chain, human resources. These modules are integrated together and are able to access the same data and execute complex business processes. With the ubiquity of ERP for businesses, the term “accounting information system” has become much less about pure accounting (financial or managerial) and more about tracking processes across all domains of business.
A modern AIS typically follows a multitier architecture separating the presentation to the user, application processing and data management in distinct layers. The presentation layer manages how the information is displayed to and viewed by functional users of the system (through mobile devices, web browsers or client application). The entire system is backed by a centralized database that stores all of the data. This can include transactional data generated from the core business processes (purchasing, inventory, accounting) or static, master data that is referenced when processing data (employee and customer account records and configuration settings). As transaction occur, the data is collected from the business events and stored into the system’s database where it can be retrieved and processed into information that is useful for making decisions. The application layer retrieves the raw data held in the database layer, processes it based on the configured business logic and passes it onto the presentation layer to display to the users. For example, consider the accounts payable department when processing an invoice. With an accounting information system, an accounts payable clerk enters the invoice, provided by a vendor, into the system where it is then stored in the database. When goods from the vendor are received, a receipt is created and also entered into the AIS. Before the accounts payable department pays the vendor, the system’s application processing tier performs a three-way matching where it automatically matches the amounts on the invoice against the amounts on the receipt and the initial purchase order. Once the match is complete, an email is sent to an accounts payable manager for approval. From here a voucher can be created and the vendor can ultimately be paid.
A big advantage of computer-based accounting information systems is that they automate and streamline reporting. Reporting is major tool for organizations to accurately see summarized, timely information used for decision-making and financial reporting. The accounting information system pulls data from the centralized database, processes and transforms it and ultimately generates a summary of that data as information that can now be easily consumed and analyzed by business analysts, managers or other decision makers. These systems must ensure that the reports are timely so that decision-makers are not acting on old, irrelevant information and, rather, able to act quickly and effectively based on report results. Consolidation is one of the hallmarks of reporting as people do not have to look through an enormous number of transactions. For instance, at the end of the month, a financial accountant consolidates all the paid vouchers by running a report on the system. The system’s application layer provides a report with the total amount paid to its vendors for that particular month. With large corporations that generate large volumes of transactional data, running reports with even an AIS can take days or even weeks.
After the wave of corporate scandals from large companies such as Tyco International, Enron and WorldCom, major emphasis was put on enforcing public companies to implement strong internal controls into their transaction-based systems. This was made into law with the passage of the Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 which stipulated that companies must generate an internal control report stating who is responsible for an organization’s internal control structure and outlines the overall effectiveness of these controls. Since most of these scandals were rooted in the companies' accounting practices, much of the emphasis of Sarbanes Oxley was put on computer-based accounting information systems. Today, AIS vendors tout their governance, risk management, and compliance features to ensure business processes are robust and protected and the organization's assets (including data) are secured.
As stated above, accounting information systems are composed of six main components: When an AIS is initially implemented or converted from an existing system, organizations sometimes make the mistake of not considering each of these components and treating them equally in the implementation. This results in a system being "built three times" rather than once because the initial system is not designed to meet the needs of the organization. The organization then tries to get the system to work. Ultimately, the organization begins again, following the appropriate process.
Following a proven process that works, as follows, results in optimal deployment time, the least amount of frustration, and overall success. Most organizations, even larger ones, hire outside consultants, either from the software publisher or consultants who understand the organization and who work to help select and implement the ideal configuration, taking all components into consideration. Certified public accountants (CPAs) with careers dedicated to information systems work with companies to implement accounting information systems that follow a proven process. Many of these CPAs hold a certificate awarded by the American Institute of CPAs—the Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP). CITPs often serve as co-project managers with an organization's project manager representing the information technology (IT) department. In smaller organizations, a co-project manager may be an outsourced IT specialist who manages the implementation of the IT infrastructure.
The steps necessary to implement a successful accounting information system are as follows: