Implementing a document management system really isn't about going paperless, and in many ways it isn't about technology, says Steve Noble, chief information officer of Larson, Allen, Weishair & Co. "We don't call it 'paperless,'" says Noble, who has held the top technology job at the Wisconsin-based CPA firm for four years. "It's more about business process than it is about technology. It's changing how you do things. It's not that we are just after reducing the amount of paper. That's very secondary."
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Document management is very much in the minds of technology leaders at accounting firms. It is one of the hottest topics for a profession that generates a lot of paper. But it is not the only topic for technology leaders like Noble, who charts the direction that technology takes at this 850-person operation, and works to make technology support the firm's business mission.
Noble got to his position in a bit of a roundabout way. He had planned to study computer science in college, but instead opted for accounting. He served clients in the audit and tax practice, but about 1995 stepped into the role of chair of the firm's technology committee. It's a pretty good meshing of experience and talents.
Larson, Allen, Weishair
Revenue: $90.6 million
LarsonAllen is spending on document management. Three hundred staff members have already been trained and Noble hopes that by the end of the year, 700 will be up and running. The software in use includes Content Manager from IBM for archiving, a product that runs on the firm's IBM I-Series computer system (once known as the IBM AS/400). It went for a package that is more robust than typical PC software because its Mize Houser practice management system also runs on the IBM midrange box.
On the workpaper side, the firm has had some pilot offices operating in a paperless environment for about three years. It switched from PPC's Engagement Manager to CCH's ProSystem fx Engagement and is now in a 12-month roll-out.
"We know there is a pretty substantial learning curve," Noble notes.
The major benefits of paperless come in other areas than in saving paper. The system rests on "our ability to serve clients and to execute our strategic plan," says Noble. With a paperless system, staffers in different offices can collaborate in real time.
Having documents digitized is a mixed blessing. While it enables the firm to provide better service, it also puts more demand on the technology infrastructure.
"It's going to create a substantial additional demand for real-time collaboration. The firm is already using video conferencing in four locations. Within the next year, it will need enterprise-caliber Web collaboration capabilities," says Noble.
Many firms are grappling with document management and the issues of the paperless office. They are also facing the growing popularity of wireless computing and the convergence of voice and data communications.
Document management is certainly one of the hottest topics at CPA firms, but it is hardly the only technology issue. "The CIO's View" features the stories of technology leaders at top CPA firms and relates their accomplishments and the issues they face, which are often issues faced by firms of all sizes.
BOURKE: THE ASP WAY
For Jim Bourke, the ASP environment is not a hyped technology that hasn't lived up to expectations or a promising platform that will develop in the future. It's here now.
The director of MIS for WithumSmith+Brown has chosen the ASP platform for document management. The firm was also one of the first accounting operations to sign up for RIA's GoSystem RS, a Web-based tax preparation system.
"We were one of the firms that jumped on RS when they really hadn't perfected it. We had a lot of down-time," says Bourke, who is based in the firm's Red Bank, N.J., office. "But we stayed with it until they got it right."
The advantages of the ASP model are obvious to Bourke during tax season and bad weather. With a traditional desktop package, the firm could end up "with 50 people sitting around waiting for the snow to stop."
WithumSmith + Brown
HQ: Princeton, N.J.
Revenue: $29.72 million
With 200 employees and an IT staff of five, WSB has placed a high value on technology. "I think as far as technology goes, we blow away a lot of firms," says Bourke, who has been with the firm for 18 years, a time in which it has expanded dramatically.
Bourke likes the ASP model because of the high priority he gives the firm's disaster recovery plan. "Everything we do in technology, we relate back to that disaster plan," he says. Products like GoSystem RS and GoFileRoom fit the plan well because the firm's data is guarded elsewhere.
Still, going paperless required a sizable investment in hardware. WSB gave each staff person a scanner, while installing a production scanner for the heavy-duty work. It also invested in dual monitors, a move that Bourke says has been essential for a paperless tax practice.
"We will eventually have over 200 monitors," he says. The firm purchased additional flat-panel monitors for each staff member and junked the traditional CRTs for those who weren't relying on the displays on their dockable notebook computers. That's an investment of about $1,000 per person for hardware, but Bourke believes that it's worth it.
"I believe that there are efficiencies," he says. "Workers may have Outlook open on the left monitor and work open on the right. They are able to more or less multi-task."
Document management also required the addition of an IT person, bringing the staff up to five-and that's not the end of the cost.
"It's also a huge investment in staff training," says Bourke. "It's a huge investment in teaching people how to use Adobe." That's not just the garden variety of Adobe Reader, found on many desktops, but the full suite of features used for annotating documents.
Turning documents into digital images requires ensuring the reliability of the data communications system. There are T-1 lines to each office and dual T-1s to the Internet. The firm also has a cable system for back-up Internet access.
"God forbid we lose access to it [the Internet]," he says.
CAMDEN: UHY-FROM FIVE, ONE
UHY Advisors isn't really a new CPA firm. It's simply a collection of five firms that are finally trying to act as one organization and to get there in a hurry, after a slow start.
"We used to be five firms and acted like five firms," says Matt Camden, who became the organization's first CIO in the spring, when it was still known as Centerprise Advisors.
Camden was previously chief technology officer at Clifton Gunderson, where he oversaw both internal IT operations and technology consulting services. He had time to build those programs since 1996 when he joined that firm. Camden, who became Clifton's chief technology officer in 2000, left that environment and stepped into a fairly unique position that requires bringing several systems together very quickly.
"Not often do you get to walk into a firm of over 1,000 professionals and start from scratch," he says.
Revenue: $151.50 million
"This is a very big firm with a very immature technology infrastructure," he says. "I walked into the firm and said, 'Where is the firm-wide email directory?' In 2004, how can you not have a firm-wide directory?" That directory was not possible until UHY standardized on one system, Microsoft Exchange. And forget the complex systems; it was a big enough challenge trying to make sure all employees had the same version of Microsoft Office.
UHY has also moved to one tax research and tax preparation system. It had employed systems from both RIA and CCH, but has moved to CCH for both. It also picked up Thomson's Elite software, which was used by one UHY office. Elite is now used for practice management, customer relationship management, and general ledger functionality.
In tax, UHY went beyond CCH's desktop ProSystem fx Tax, selecting the Internet-based Global fx, which is gaining users, but is not exactly a mainstream product yet. But Camden says he has a bias for outsourcing functions and using the Internet.