When members of the American Institute of CPAs Information Technology Executive Committee want to share information with each other, they've got an easy way to do it - through a Web-based SharePoint portal.The portal, which lives on an AICPA server, allows members to go online, click on a URL, log in and have access to any files or informational updates placed there.

"It's got everything from a list of names and phone numbers of the committee members to announcements to standard forms, to files [that] we're going back and forth on, to agendas, calendars or a to-do list," explained David Cieslak, chair of the committee and principal of Arxis Technology in Simi Valley, Calif. "It's really kind of a whole little meeting place that helps you get together and synchronize regarding the efforts of that ad hoc group."

In other words, it's a way of collaborating across geographies, which can save time and money and office space.

Dr. Robert Spencer, an Elizabethtown, Ky.-based technology lecturer, consultant and author of Twenty Seconds in the Future, said that the use of collaboration tools is increasing in small and midsized firms because of such advantages. For example, a tax professional who is based out of one office and is considered an expensive commodity can easily become a resource for other locations.

"The better our tools are to electronically collaborate, the less expense or cost to physically being in the presence of the person they are working with," Spencer said. "To put this person on a plane or in a car and have him driving back and forth is expensive productivity time, but with the appropriate collaboration tools, I can use that expertise across multiple offices and leverage the benefit."

Collaboration tools can be more than sharing and editing documents online. Web conferencing, e-mailing, instant messaging, blogs and podcasts are all ways of sharing information electronically. Firms are also beginning to create internal "Wiki" pages for keeping staff and partners up to date on particular issues or topics.

More interest in collaboration tools has also come from a growing desire to go paperless, according to Barry Jinks, president and chief executive of Colligo Networks in Vancouver, B.C. Colligo offers WorkGroup Edition applications that allow document sharing, electronic instant messaging or "chatting," and file transferring, as well as a host of other functions, through a wireless laptop connection.

TEAM-BUILDING

"Everybody wants to move to electronic - that's the way it's been going - and really the only way to go electronic is to use some sort of content management tool," Jinks said, adding that, though many firms have gone paperless, a sophisticated way of organizing and sharing content is usually missing. "Once you start to manage the content electronically, the next thing you really want to do is figure out a way to share that content with your coworkers, because accounting is very much a team-based activity."

Sue Torgerson, director of segment management at CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business, agreed. One of CCH's collaboration tools is ProSystem fx Engagement, which allows CPAs to work independently and then synchronize that work with the rest of the firm at a later time.

"To me, that collaboration is core, and has been a key to how firms have been successful in terms of the staffing shortage of the last seven years," she said. "People don't realize what a human profession it is and there is so much interaction."

Among those helping people realize the benefits of using collaboration tools is Raju Vegesna, a principal at Zoho, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based company that currently offers 19 online applications, including online word processing, Web conferencing, customer relationship management systems and e-mail. All are accessed through the company's Web site and the applications are free for individuals, with a fee for selected tools for companies. According to Vegesna, Zoho, which currently has 1.2 million users, is working to bridge accounting applications and collaboration tools. "You have your e-mail or you have your document management system on one side; on another side, you have your accounting applications or your CRM application and all of these have their own data," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no way to integrate all the data across these systems. We are trying to provide that."

Another advantage of a collaboration tool such as Zoho is that it allows you to get away from using attachments, which can sometimes be cumbersome. Documents can be created online, or a user can create a Word document and upload the document to a central meeting place using a collaboration tool. Once uploaded, that document can be manipulated, edited, discussed through instant messaging, and previous versions can be accessed.

"When I log into the AICPA IT Executive Committee SharePoint portal site, I don't need to have access to the AICPA network to do that," Cieslak said. "It allows me to collaborate with other people without really giving too much thought to me connecting to their network, them connecting to mine and having to get far more intimate than we really intend."

THE LEADING TOOLS

Spencer pointed to Microsoft as a clear leader in collaboration tools, offering, among other options, SharePoint and Groove, which he said are easy to set up and boast a large installed base.

"SharePoint can be just as applicable to a large firm that has an in-house server or a small firm that wants to be able to share documents with their clients, but doesn't have in-house expertise," Spencer said. "They can rent those services at [places such as] www.myhosting.com at a very cost-effective rate and still present the personification of being a larger, more sophisticated firm."

The biggest distinction between SharePoint and Groove, according to Paul Cannon, workspaces product manager for Microsoft, is that Groove is desktop-based; infrastructure and a server are not required to create a workspace. Groove users can invite each other to join into each other's workspaces - with the documents and files living only on those users' drives. "If you are at a location where you don't have Internet and you need to keep working, you can keep working inside Groove," Cannon said. "The next time you get Internet, that file will be encrypted, automatically sent, temporarily stored if need be for every user, and then downloaded by the other users so they will get those changes - and the other person doesn't need to be online when you're online."

Microsoft has also begun to incorporate collaboration tools into Office products - an offering that will make sharing information online more accessible.

"The fact that we have it integrated within the core desktop applications is going to make it easier for people to just start doing it in real time and make it a lot easier to do and a lot more transparent," Cieslak said. "As [users] upgrade to newer versions of products, because it is built into menus, it is very useable. That's what we're finding."

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