Working the Flow

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Peri Ann Aptaker is outnumbered at Kahn, Litwin, Renza and Co., the largest public accounting firm in Rhode Island. Among the firm's six partners, five are on the accounting and auditing side, leaving Aptaker, the director of tax services, the sole partner in charge of tax work. Nonetheless, Aptaker plays a key role in pushing the firm's growth and profitability, as she takes advantage of workflow and document management systems to inject efficiency and productivity into the way her tax department-as well as other areas of the firm- serve clients across multiple practice areas.

The 100-employee firm offers a wide range of services covering general accounting and audit work, tax preparation and planning, business valuations, estate planning, executive recruitment, forensic accounting, and strategic planning.

"We try to offer every client all of our services, and we're very good at cross-selling," says Aptaker, who also serves as the firm's director of estate, gifts, and trust group, and holds CPA, PFS, CFP, CBA, and ESQ credentials.

Partner Insights

If a staff accountant or partner in the accounting and audit group recognizes that a client is shipping products to customers in multiple states, for example, he or she will refer that engagement with a report of its needs to the firm's state and local tax group through the firm's CabinetNG workflow and document management system. In turn, the same client may also become a client of the firm's advisory services.

To offer its clients services across practice areas efficiently, Kahn Litwin relies on systems including CabinetNG, which provides centralized, Web-based access to client documents throughout the engagement process, and its File in Time application from TimeValue Software that tracks the due dates of client tax returns.

Outsourcing Roots

Workflow and related document management systems have come a long way in recent years, Aptaker and other experts say.

Their development has been partly an outgrowth of outsourcing services that tax and accounting firms have used to manage surges in work activity during peak seasons, as workflow became a key component of services that would route work papers and other documents among outsourced staff for client data entry and among an accounting firm's tax professionals and partners for final calculations and approval. Many firms get started in workflow by subscribing to outsourced services, and then continue to rely on workflow as they bring more of those services in house.

 
CPA firm Gumbiner Savett, for instance, started using SurePrep's outsourcing tax return preparation services three years ago as part of an overall drive to improve the firm's efficiency, but since then has migrated to using the SurePrep Express workflow application to support the direct preparation of all client returns by the firm's staff, says Barbara Rosenbaum, head of the firm's tax department. Gumbiner Savett also uses CCH ProSystem fx Engagement software to manage workflow in its accounting work, and the SurePrep and CCH applications each integrate with the GoFileRoom document management/TaxFlow workflow system from RIA.

In addition to making her firm more efficient and productive, workflow also makes it more attractive to prospective employees at a time when competition is increasing in the recruitment of tax and accounting professionals.

"People who come to interview for positions at the firm like the fact that we are progressive in our use of technology," Rosenbaum says.

The development of workflow technology coincides with and complements the trend in many accounting firms to go virtually paperless, as more firms like Kahn Litwin and Gumbiner Savett receive, prepare, and deliver most, if not all, of their client documents electronically.

"A paperless environment including SurePrep and other applications allows us to not only be more efficient, but to standardize our processes and provide more services to clients," Rosenbaum says.

Streamlining Tax Work

Managing a tax practice efficiently and productively requires a carefully orchestrated series of steps-gathering the necessary documents for preparing returns, entering data, completing returns, forwarding completed returns for manager or partner approval, and sending final documents to clients.

Along the way, documents also must be stored in temporary as well as long-term files and available for retrieval. Ideally, managers and partners need to be able see where any one particular return is at any time, and make adjustments to workloads to keep the overall process running smoothly.

Several software vendors have been tweaking their systems to address such concerns. The general trend is toward user-friendly applications with graphical user interfaces.

RIA has improved its GoFileRoom by adding several data-reporting capabilities to help regulate workload among both data-entry personnel and tax professionals.

"The biggest thing clients have been asking for is built-in reporting features that provide the ability to better manage bottlenecks and show who has what document at any point in time," says Joe Harpaz, vice president of business development for RIA. "For example, a report could show what work is overdue or approaching an overdue date. Another report could drill down to show the number of returns compiled per hour."

GoFileRoom also automates the movement of documents among staff, managers, and partners. As a data-entry person completes a task, a click of a software button sends the document to the assigned reviewer, whose work is automatically forwarded upon completion to the manager or partner for final approval. The application also contains a built-in alerts system that can automatically send an email or software message to notify managers and partners when work is delayed or has been completed.

The RIA system meshes workflow with document management in a suite of software integrated with XML-based Web services technology. That enables GoFileRoom, for example, to export client data from tax software and into a firm's practice management application to automatically maintain accurate client records, Harpaz says.

Earlier this year, CCH Tax and Accounting expanded its workflow and document capabilities with the acquisition of tools from DocuMatters. As a paperless workflow application, renamed ProSystem fx Scan, the system is designed to automatically read and recognize client documents such as W-2 forms and interest-earned statements needed for preparing 1040 income tax returns, then sorts and outputs the documents to a PDF file in the Adobe Acrobat system. A tax preparer can then use PDFlyer, an Acrobat plug-in, to work with and annotate multiple PDF files in a multi-screen environment, then forward the documents as necessary.

 
CCH's ProSystem fx Engagement, which is used by Gumbiner Savett, is a workflow application that integrates with ProSystem fx Tax compliance software and stores engagement binders in a Windows Explorer-style file room, providing accountants with network access to engagement documents.

Maintaining Processes

A key part of making new workflow systems easy to implement is their ability to accommodate a firm's existing preferred processes - rather than change a firm's processes to fit the requirements of the workflow application itself.

"We set up CabinetNG based on whatever way a client is already managing their documents," says vice president James True.

Clients can define rules, for example, that certain types of accounting or tax documents get routed to particular professionals or partners, who get automatically notified of a document arriving in a workflow inbox. A preview image of the document allows users to quickly decide whether it's something they need to review in detail or forward to the next person in line.

CabinetNG also logs the entire process of document flow, providing an audit trail of how a document moved through a firm, including notes attached by each person who worked on it. If a client calls at any time during the process, users can immediately access the location and status of their file.

At Kahn Litwin, it once might have taken days to locate documents and track the status of tax returns after checking in file cabinets and with several personnel, says Aptaker.

"Now, when a client calls with a question, we can provide an answer in seconds," she says. "If the return isn't done yet, I can see whom the work papers were assigned to. Whoever has the workpapers can look on their screen and answer 90 percent of the client's questions."

Moreover, having immediate network access to electronic records and workflow status has allowed the firm to eliminate its former practice of storing three years' worth of tax returns and accounting papers in an on-site storage room. That space is now used for 14 new workstations to support a staff expansion and more engagements in tax, accounting, and consulting.

Overall Efficiency

Although much of today's workflow technology for accounting firms has its roots in outsourcing services related to the preparation of tax returns, as with SurePrep and XCM Solutions, more vendors are positioning workflow to serve cross-departmental needs.

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