The signs are everywhere-the paperless office may not be just around the corner, but tax and accounting professionals are starting to believe there is a legitimate chance to reduce the piles clogging their filing cabinets and cluttering their desks.
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Nowhere was that faith more visible than at the AICPA’s Tech 2003 conference in Las Vegas in June.
One morning, attendees were given the opportunity to pick from five breakout sessions with topics that included data integration and mining, mid-market accounting software, training, and wireless technology. More than 200, well over a third of all attendees, chose to listen to Tom Davis, a practitioner from Valdosta, Ga., describe the various options for paperless offices.
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However, the danger is that without good procedures electronic images can be just as much of a morass as paper-one that although perhaps not as expensive to administer, is certainly more expensive than users think.
Files can get misfiled, deleted by accident, destroyed on purpose. In a recent visit, representatives of Storagetek, whose storage applications are out of the reach of all but the largest accounting firms, outlined the problems that can occur with electronic messages.
After email is accidentally deleted, users ask IT staff to help retrieve them, searching servers and backup tapes. Files can be placed in incorrect directories, so that finding them or recreating them has a quantifiable cost, just as finding or recreating paper files has a cost. Let’s face it-IT personnel cost more than clerical help when it comes to retrieving lost information.
It was Davis, in a later interview, who said that the smart practice is to treat electronic files just like paper documents. Good document management is good document management, regardless of the media. There must be policies for retention and destruction. Does a firm decide to purge files on a regular basis, or does it just assume that disk space is cheap and save everything? That methodology would probably make many lawyers cringe. There is information that should be destroyed.
Does the firm take steps to protect files from accidental erasure (the ever-perilous delete key), or from deliberate attacks from the inside or the outside, whether electronic vandalism or out-and-out theft? In fact, the potential destruction of electronic files and the liability if they are not protected is probably greater than that involving paper documents. After all, paper isn’t accessible to the outside world the way computers are when they are hooked up to the Internet and email.
Those who thought that their worries would be over once they put files on disk or tape and their worries are over haven’t begun to experience the depth of the troubles they face. Paperless will change things. But it still requires business organization skills and a realistic assessment of pluses and minus.
Robert Scott - Editor