At first, it looked like a response to a lackluster year in trying to interest accountants in outsourcing tax preparation. Two of the players in the outsourcing business have introduced workflow software. After that initial reaction, however, it became more apparent that workflow software is important. Whether recent products from SurePrep Express and Kirkland Albrecht's XCM Solutions will be the winners or even serious players, does not matter.
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Workflow has been a nasty little secret hanging a round the computer room door for some time. Or in businesses that are too small to have a computer room, it's been sitting on the managing partner or owner's desk.
Technology changes how people work. Or it should. But there have been a lot of anecdotes about firms that buy tax preparation software, only to keep sending printed copies to the partners for review. Those firms don't have computer-based systems. They are running parallel manual and computer-based systems and wasting as much money as they save.
To be fair, one reason smaller firms don't change the way they operate is that they have enough headaches running what they have to re-engineer the firm, although if they thought about it, they would realize it's worth the extra effort even in an already overburdened business world. If you were running a big business, you would talk about squeezing out the inefficiencies. Small businesses just feel squeezed. But stop to think about it; a lot of workflow is pretty much who does what and in what order. It's a concept that's a lot easier for small firms to get their hands around than, say, customer relationship management.
How workflow functionality is delivered will be a matter of debate. The immediate reaction of two leading vendors, CCH and Creative Solutions was that "we've had that in our software for a long time." But the number of times the word "workflow" appeared on signs at exhibits at the New York Business & Technology Show & Conference suggests that there are people who think workflow is an issue.
It is hard to envision workflow existing as a separate application for too many years, however. It seems more likely that these products will eventually wind up as part of a CPA office suite. As the market has largely consolidated, when quality products with new functionality emerge, they are purchased by the major players. Creative Solution's acquisition of Immediatech, which makes the Web-based GoFileRoom document management system, falls into that category.
Whatever the course, workflow is worth thinking about. In most cases, it's worth doing something about.