Document management systems are moving into the mainstream. In the sci-fi thriller Minority Report, one of the most impressive scenes was Tom Cruise rapidly moving his hands to retrieve and manipulate large amounts of video and text files on a large three-dimensional screen, truly giving new meaning to the phrase "information at your fingertips." While not quite as technologically advanced as this, document management software systems of today still provide the means necessary to achieving a truly paperless work environment.
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Document management has come of age. Certainly this year many accounting firms will (or should) consider implementing these increasingly paperless systems that have the potential to dramatically change workflow processes for both office-based and remote users. A completely paperless environment is probably not attainable, but one with less paper certainly is desirable. Typically, a CPA firm might have over 20 percent of its physical space devoted to the storing and retention of paper files. A reduction to just 10 percent would result in significant cost savings. Another often overlooked benefit of document management software is that in the event of a disaster, file back-ups readily retrieve all stored documents-accessible, if necessary, from remote locations.
Also referred to as digital optimization or the paperless office, document management is the process of capturing and managing documents electronically. A simplistic view of document management is that of an electronic (paperless) file cabinet, used to organize and store archived documents originating from multiple external sources. Rather than searching for documents in physical files, accountants can access them instantly from these virtual filing cabinets. The result: Information at your fingertips!
The most important elements to consider when going paperless are the conversion of existing documents to digital files, the storage of these digital files, and the indexing systems for retrieving these stored files. Scanning or printing to file are the most prevalent methods of converting records. You can also purchase software to receive faxes electronically, saving the scanning steps. Business rules need to be developed to determine what should be converted and the most appropriate format for storing the digital files. Choices include simple optical character recognition; Word documents, which allow electronic editing of files after they have been converted; and PDF files, which allow for document annotations.
The concept is simple; the difficulty is in choosing and implementing the right solution. Choices of software range from simply collecting digital images that are organized manually in folders to using sophisticated databases that store these documents with complex indexing systems. Paperless office systems also require hardware used for scanning paper documents into electronic format. The key is to evaluate useful features, not simply the number of features.
Consider also the clients' source data, its location and method of procurement, and movement through the various layers of the firm. For just a simple tax return, the client's original data must be obtained, scanned, turned into a tax return, reviewed by others, printed for delivery, and stored for later retrieval and copies.
Choosing document management software can be as challenging a process as evaluating other accounting firm software applications, and is a task worthy of equal attention. The complexity of the many products available varies greatly, and needs assessment is critical to focus the selection and evaluation process on specific firm requirements.
It is important to realize that beyond basic document organization, document management also incorporates workflow processes specific to content, knowledge, and communication. Therefore, as is the case with any other software application, the success of the implementation will hinge on the planning process, internal systems, hardware and software requirements, and training. Consistency and uniformity standards should be created for all types of client and firm documentation. Document management will not succeed within an unstructured workplace environment.
Plan and replicate a layout consistent with your manual system. For example, you may organize a client's data by several accordion-style files, including income tax, payroll tax, sales tax, property tax, billing, and write-up. The advantage of using the same methodology for your electronic storage system is the familiarity that your staff has with the existing system. Choose a fairly easy area to implement initially, like individual tax returns. From there you can proceed to workpapers, client correspondence, and financial statements.
When budgeting for electronic document management, be sure to consider all the costs associated with the physical location of the files, changing systems, purchasing optical scanning and storage equipment, and training costs. Beyond these initial costs are installation costs, conversion, staff training, and staff time to use. Also, consider the cost of yearly maintenance and updates.
Vendor consolidation within the marketplace is inevitable; those reviewed here seem to be establishing credibility through expanding customer bases. Expect the leaders of traditional tax and write-up applications to achieve and maintain the market lead early on.
Some vendors even offer add-on modules that allow CPA firms to securely share documents with their clients, such as tax returns and financial statements. Clients that log in can view or print (but not edit) documents the firm has decided they can access.
Paperless automation has without a doubt moved past the early adopter phase. Many CPA firms are considering this a "must" technology to implement within the next few years. The paperless office should be the ultimate goal of every accounting office. For many firms, a phased implementation is a practical approach, giving the firms' staff access to key documents while allowing sharing with clients and external parties. The end result: reduced operating costs and time savings. Continuing price decreases will facilitate widespread adoption, as the average cost per seat becomes more reasonable. Measuring improved client service and convenience against acquisition and implementation costs will become the metric for determining success.
Fast, flexible, and easy to use, CPADocument Manager offers a desktop solution to manage and store all your client and firm-related documents. With this electronic document storage system, you can organize, store, and retrieve archived information for clients, vendors, and employees.
With CPADocument Manager, you create multiple primary file cabinets to store your firm's documents. Secondary cabinets store client and employee information. Navigation tools aid in finding specific folders and documents within a file cabinet. You can search by both folder and document name. Several options on the File menu provide tools to customize each file cabinet's appearance and capabilities to the specific needs of each staff member.
The CPADocument Manager window features a split display with document folders on the left-hand side and the clients on the right. The various options and functions displayed vary based on user access. To open a file, select the client and the file that you wish to review. Click on the column headings to sort the list.
The software stores documents and scanned images from any application, including CPAAccounting Manager and CPAPractice Manager, as well as documents created in Adobe, Word, and Excel. The Document PDF Capture feature allows you to store reports, tax forms, statements, and other client documents printed from any software application. You can also attach documents using Windows Explorer, by right clicking on the folder where you want to store the document and then clicking "Attach." Windows Explorer then opens, allowing you to browse to the location of the file. Once you locate the file, you simply drag the document to its desired location in CPADocument Manager.
A Dialog box provides an alternate method of document attachment. You can either attach items by reference or store the actual item. If stored as a reference, and the original item is deleted, you will be unable to display the item for viewing and editing. Information stored when attaching documents includes the attachment type (Excel, Word, image, other,) document description, password, and archive year.
You can scan, review, and attach documents to specific client and employee folders, either individually or by batch. You can also attach documents using PDF print capture as they are printed from other software applications.
The Document menu provides options for document retrieval and maintenance. The Check-in/Check-out feature allows changes to a document by first retrieving the desired document (check-out), editing it, and then returning it to its original location (check-in).
You are prompted upon check in if you want to delete the file created in the original folder. Document properties provide useful information about stored documents, including check-in and check-out dates and who checked out the document. You can also add notes to documents to explain reasons for editing documents. The Cut function allows reorganization and movement of documents from one folder to another. You can also send documents as attachments to an email message.
Scanner and archiving options provide each user choices that select the scanner type accessible by their computer and the preference to choose to permanently archive documents for offsite storage and back-up purposes. You can also extract a working copy of documents to send to clients or use offsite.