It has failed to materialize so often that the "paperless office" achieved the kind of stature usually reserved for the Lost City of El Dorado or the Holy Grail. Yet in the last two years, a quiet revolution has taken place in the field of document management and the accounting industry is beginning to see the emergence of world-class applications. None of the major solutions is there yet. But there are enough development programs underway and enough new features moving into release versions to determine five major elements that will shape the future of this market:
Like what you see? Click here to sign up for Accounting Today's daily newsletter to get the latest news and behind the scenes commentary you won't find anywhere else.
NON-PROPRIETARY, OPEN SYSTEMS. Already, nearly all of the packages feature PDF and Microsoft Office as their native file formats for storage. But many of the top-shelf applications need to break their ties to a single tax program or single accounting suite. The top products of the future will integrate easily with every application that creates a file or generates a piece of paper.
BETTER INPUT TECHNOLOGIES. Once relegated to merely scanning paper documents and spitting out a .PDF facsimile, emerging technologies in forms recognition create forms that can be more easily indexed, searched, and archived. Meanwhile, OCR technologies are opening new vistas in scanning and indexing hand-written notes and forms.
A SHIFT FROM CLIENT/SERVER TO ASP WEB-BASED SOLUTIONS. An ASP solution can more quickly integrate improvements, offers better security for accounting firms below the enterprise level, and better options both for 24/7 access by professionals and collaboration with clients.
BETTER SUPPORT FOR ACCOUNTING OPERATIONS. Only recently has document management been tied to such integral and specific actions such as audit engagements, tax engagements, workflow management, and work-in-process binders. The trend will be to continue this accounting-centric development, so that document management takes on the elements of a vertical, industry-specific market.
FEWER VENDOR OPTIONS. There are, by last count, nearly 15 vendors of document management solutions for accounting firms. For the next year or two, rapidly expanding features and innovation will create a chasm between the best and least of these products, at the same time growing simplicity will drive prices down. The bottom line is that the lower-tier services will evolve or die, and the market will be ruled by two or three of the best vendors.
For 2007, we examined nine of the packages ranging from small and economical to enterprise-level solutions. While none does everything, a few come very close to emerging as best-of-breed applications.
Acct1st, a document management, workflow, and archiving solution, stresses flexibility to meet the diverse needs of different accounting firms. It files documents in their native language, uses no proprietary software or services, works with a wide range of accounting and business applications, and can function as either an internal or hosted service.
The hosted service can also function well as an internal intranet Web service or via outsourced hosting at a Level IV secure facility operated by AdHost.Com.
Though similar to many other document management, and archiving solutions, Acct1st is notable for its administrative and accounting-specific modules. An Integrated Save module allows documents to enter the system from any accounting application or business program that uses a Windows-standard "save" or "save as" function.
It communicates with the Master Client Table of most time and billing, practice management, and engagement applications. And it uniquely allows accounting firms to export a client's files to a CD, complete with a file viewer. Administrators have flexibility in classifying documents and in scheduling automated document retention.
Accounting-specific modules include a secure email module to safely share documents with clients and third parties; tax scanning for document input and tax flow for engagement document management; a client portal system; and specific integrations with QuickBooks, all major tax applications, CaseWare, VPM Practice Management, and MAS 90/200.
In a marketplace that is undergoing rapid change, Acct1st may have fewer features than other systems, but it ranks as one of the most economical and flexible solutions available to accounting offices. Aimed at the market for midsize enterprises, its flexibility and scalability bring it high marks from accounting users.
ACCT1ST TECHNOLOGY GROUP
Price: LAN-based $250 per user; $1,000 (one-time server license) $50 renewal.
Cabinet NG CNG-Safe 5.8
Cabinet NG's Shared Access Filing Environment, a sequence of shells, tracks, indexes, and securely stores documents in an out-of-the-box solution aimed at the small-to-medium business market.
A client-server system, CNG-Safe requires at least Windows 2000 Server to operate. It follows a standard filing-cabinet architecture of drawers, folders, tabs, and documents, consistent with the filing systems used in typical accounting, audit, and tax engagements. The system allows for direct management and archiving of Outlook and Office files, but does not have direct linkages for major accounting and engagement applications (these require some additional programming work via APIs and .CSV text files).
Though not an accounting-centric system, CNG-Safe offers two notable links, one to Act's contact management support, and one to QuickBooks files and documents via a CNG-Books module. The CNG-Books module automatically saves QuickBooks documents as they are created. It also allows selected documents such as invoices above a preset level to be routed to appropriate levels for workflow and compliance management.
Recent enhancements have focused on improvements in content search, conversion and scanning of documents, and dynamic workflow capabilities based on a wider set of variables. The updated workflow capabilities are notable in that they allow for both structured, rules-driven workflows, and the more ad-hoc flow that is typical of small firms during tax season.
Cabinet NG's Safe is aimed at the small-to-midsized business office, where its easy navigation and in-house orientation can maximize both its value and economy. It should be of particular interests to accountants whose clients use QuickBooks because of its capabilities for document creating, routing, and viewing.
CABINET NG CNG-SAFE 5.8
Price: $995 per user, or $1,395 per concurrent user (minimum three users). Software maintenance, included first year; 20 percent per year afterward.
Doc.It encompasses the three critical areas of document management-workflow management, a work-in-progress binder, and archiving of all documents. Created specifically for accounting firms, Doc.It is platform independent and does not require third-party components like SQL database licenses, Adobe Acrobat licenses, and Optical Character software.
Designed for offices of five to 500 employees, the Doc.It Suite includes Doc.It DM, a firmwide archiving platform; Doc.It Workflow, to allow firms to track and manage any type of project and provides load balancing, for tax engagements to help ensure that the workload is distributed evenly throughout the organization; and Doc.It Work-in-Progress Binder, to provide the ability to share and process the active unpublished documents within the security of the Doc.It DM environment. Batch Print allows documents to be rolled into a single bookmarked PDF with bookmark details for every combined section.
Also included are an Advanced Forms Recognition module to automatically organize a majority of routine documents, like personal tax source slips, through optical character recognition and a database. AFR comes with all IRS tax form definitions but can quickly add new forms into its library. A Doc.It Web Publishing module allows clients to retrieve published documents through a secure link from the firm's Web site. And an Email Converter for Outlook helps to handle the thorny issue of archiving and managing emails, a critically important tool given recent judicial rulings with respect to emails.
A well-designed system, Doc-It offers advanced features without the trappings and expense of proprietary platforms. Aimed specifically at accounting offices, its core strengths are an understanding of how accounting offices work and how their needs for workflow and work-in-progress differ substantially from those of other types of paperless offices.
Price: Monthly subscription ranges from $35 to $25.00 per user, paid quarterly.
FileCabinet CS, a document management and archiving system, can be installed either internally on the accounting firm's server or via a secure hosted solution. Offered as part of the CS Professional Suite, it integrates seamlessly with other Thomson products, notably the PPC e-Practice Aids and e-Workpapers.
Because of its modular approach, FileCabinet CS is actually two systems in one. As a stand-alone document management and archiving application, it offers fast and effective document flow from scanning of paper documents and direct storage of information from any Windows application to its use of PDF file formats and excellent security features.
As part of an integrated solution, it is so much more. In addition to FileCabinet CS, workflow capabilities are integrated via Engagement CS and tax workflow via UltraTax CS. Members of the firm and permitted third parties may access the data using Virtual Office CS, while clients access their own data via NetClient CS. It automatically organizes and indexes documents ranging from tax returns and workpapers to fixed assets reports, tax planning reports, financial statements, W-2s, 1099s, payroll reports, and invoices.