We've been hearing that the paperless office is imminent, and we've been hearing it for years.

Things are getting better, but many practices continue to drown in a sea of paper. Fortunately, document management, workflow management, and related applications can offer even smaller firms a less paper-intensive office. Additionally, the right application can make storing, finding, handling and routing documents more efficient.

However, choosing the right application, getting it correctly configured and up and running, and maintaining it, isn't always easy. That's especially true for the many smaller practices whose IT department consists of a computer-literate staff member or two.

Approaching these applications, though, does not have to be intimidating. There are things you can do to maximize your acquisition and implementation efforts.

First, differentiate between workflow management and document management, which are sometimes used identically. For the most part, in both cases "documents" are being routed. With workflow management, these "documents" are routed to people. Sometimes this is done for the person receiving it to check it, approve it and send it off to a different person for additional processing. Some examples of this kind of workflow might be expense reimbursement or tax returns, both of which often have to be checked by one person or department, and then approved by a member of senior management. In a smaller practice, workflow management often has a somewhat different meaning - making sure that work is accomplished when it is supposed to be, by who is supposed to do it, and the work gets where it has to go (the client, the IRS, etc.).

With document management, the "document" needs to be captured, often converted into a different file format, and sent to the necessary recipients. With DM, those endpoints can be e-mails, file folders on network PCs, and, most frequently, a central database where they are abstracted, keywords are extracted, and a version number of the particular "document" assigned. In a larger practice, user rights - who has access to the document - may also be assigned. Document management, for the most part, is a collaborative tool. Staff know where "documents" are stored, what their contents are, how they can be retrieved, who has access to them, and if they have been modified.

The word "document" to this point has been in quotes. That's because it still needs to be defined. Most of us think of paper when we see the word "document," and many times a document will consist of a paper printout of a report, fax, e-mail, or Web page.

But it doesn't have to.

Perhaps a more accurate term for this application is "content management," because a document management system can usually handle much more than pieces of paper. In fact, for any document or workflow management system to operate, it first has to turn a paper document into an electronic file. This is usually accomplished by scanning the paper. If the contents of the paper are text, the image of the text is turned into a text file or a PDF (Portable Document Format) file by a process called optical character recognition.

Sometimes, the documents are already in electronic format, such as Microsoft Office files, PDFs, or e-faxes or e-mails. Many practices also keep digitized versions of other kinds of content, such as signatures and logos, or even clip art or photos.

 

GETTING TO THE POINT ... EASILY

Not all document management or workflow management needs to be accomplished through a separate specific application. Workflow and collaboration can frequently be performed though applications that you already use, such as Outlook, Word (which can allow and track multiple versions of Word documents), and many calendar applications, such as Google Calendars and the calendar function of Outlook, both of which allow collaboration and the assignment of staff-wide assignments, deadlines and appointments.

Some of the applications that you already use may have document management capabilities. For example, CaseWare's Working Papers treats everything it uses, including journal pages, as a document. Many other vendors provide limited "filing cabinet" adjuncts to their software.

 

FREE IS SOMETIMES FINE

If your firm is bold, you may want to consider an open-source solution. These are applications that are offered free to download and use. The revenue model kicks in when you need support, which you have to pay for. Most open-source providers have support subscription plans, and online blogs and wikis also provide a measure of help. But keep in mind that the response time with an open-source product can vary dramatically - from hours to days or longer, depending on the number of people the developer has assigned to this function and their load at the moment that you need support.

If you can live with these constraints, you might want to look at ProcessMaker (www.processmaker.com) as a workflow/business process solution, and OpenKM (www.openkm.com), EpiWare (www.epiware.com) and OpenDocMan (www.opendocman.com) as open-source document management systems. Some open-source developers even offer hosted versions of their applications.

Keep in mind when thinking about workflow or document management applications that most of them are built around the ability to scan paper documents. This implies that you have one or more scanners in your practice. These don't necessarily need to be dedicated scanner-only devices. Many all-in-one or multi-function printers have scanners that will work just fine with many workflow/document management applications.

Your current scanning capability may be enough to meet your needs, depending on the types of documents you anticipate scanning and the volume. If you need more scanning capabilities, give serious thought to network-capable scanners with the ability to scan in duplex mode (both sides of the paper at the same time). This type of scanner is generally considerably more expensive than many scanners that attach to an individual PC through a USB connection, but a network scanner is usually faster, does not require that a host PC be powered on and running for the scanner to be accessible to other users, and can be moved to any physical location where a network connection and AC power is available.

Finding the right fit in a workflow or document management application requires that you have a good understanding of what kinds of documents and data flows exist in your practice. So spend the requisite up-front time, and you should be able to make a choice that lessens paper clutter and makes you and your staff more productive.

 

AccountantsWorld CyberCabinet

AccountantsWorld

Price: 1GB storage - $49 per month, or $495 per year. Additional 1GB - $20 per year.

www.accountantsworld.com

A document management system does not have to be complex. Depending on firm requirements, it can be as simple as an application that stores electronic files and provides a method or retrieving them. AccountantsWorld has a large suite of Software-as-a-Service-based accountant-oriented applications that fall under the umbrella of its PowerPractice system.

CyberCabinet is a simple file-and-retrieve application that simply provides an online place to store electronic documents, whether those documents are generated by a part of the vendor's other applications, or were produced from another source, such as an Office application.

There's really not much more to this particular application. It doesn't perform keyword extraction, automatically create abstracts, or track version numbers. It simply provides a safe, password-protected place to store documents, and by assigning user rights, allows your clients to access and retrieve selected documents.

Given the very reasonable fees, these capabilities, limited though they may be in comparison to more expensive and complex document/workflow management systems, may be just what your firm is looking for.

 

CNG-Safe

Cabinet NG

Price: Available by license or online subscription; price varies depending on which products are selected.

www.cabinetng.com

Another option to consider for your document management application is a modular system such as Cabinet NG, which offers a variety of parts that can be put together to create a customized system. The core of the system is CNG-Safe, which is the actual storage and retrieval system. Retriever allows your applications to access the document store, and there's a version that works with Web-based applications. CNG also supports remote access through its CNG-Web module, which allows a user to inquire, store and retrieve documents through a Web browser, which can be on a network machine or on a machine anywhere there is Internet access.

For those firms heavily invested in QuickBooks, there is a QB-specific version of CNG-Safe called CNG-Books that provides QuickBooks with an extended document management capability.

CabinetNG can also function to some extent as a workflow manager. This is accomplished using the Retriever module. By creating rules as to what documents or document classes can be flowed into specific applications (and who has these access rights), you can effectively create a document management system that not only stores and allows staff to find needed documents, but, when necessary, also route the documents to a person or application.

 

CCH ProSystem fx Document

CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business

Price: Single-user annual subscription - $699. Price per user is reduced as user base increases.

www.cchgroup.com

At first glance, ProSystem fx Document looks a lot like a simple electronic filing cabinet with file, store and retrieve capabilities. Many accountant-oriented solutions have a filing cabinet application. But ProSystem fx Document provides functionality that turns it into a true DM system, albeit one that's focused on accounting firm priorities.

At its most basic level, ProSystem fx Document does pretty much the same thing all filing/document management systems do. It lets you store and retrieve electronic documents. Where things start to get interesting is when the application gets more sophisticated. Unlike some of the products that call themselves document management systems, the ProSystem application allows you to set retention dates (a feature of value in an accounting practice where a client's records have a defined life), synchronize with exchange servers to archive e-mails in a searchable format, and interface with other applications, including QuickBooks and selected other ProSystem modules.

As with most true document management systems, ProSystem fx Document provides the ability to track changes and versions, which lets you and your staff know that they are working with the most recent revision of a document. Document lock-out can be enabled so that multiple staff members aren't unknowingly working on the same document, and the application requires that documents be checked out when they are being used and checked back in, leaving an audit trail for the application administrator.

Another nice feature is that ProSystem fx Document can be integrated with ProSystem fx Portal (a separate product) to provide a collaborative portal that provides protected access to pertinent documents and other content to staff members working remotely or clients with access rights.

 

Doc.It Suite

Doc.It

Price: $35 per month per user.

www.doc-it.com

When it comes to document and workflow management, it's certainly easy to go expensive and complicated. But you can get a good amount of functionality at a reasonable and realistic price. The Doc.It Suite provides a very usable and functional document manager, along with basic elements of workflow management as well. At its core, Doc.It Archive stores "published" documents in PDF format and allows you to construct structured searches to retrieve relevant documents. There's a Policy Manager that allows you to set user rights, and a Work-in-Progress Binder that holds documents currently being used in a single place. The Doc.It WIP Binder maintains version history, and you can drag and drop any electronic format file, such as e-mails, into the binder.

The Doc.It Publisher is the gateway into the archive, and allows files from CaseWare Working Papers and CCH ProSystem fx Engagement Manager to also be stored in the WIP Binder.

One feature that Doc.It provides that's lacking in many of the other products is a full scan capability. You can scan documents and create PDFs and perform OCR. Doc.It supports any scanner that uses the Twain driver, and even supports Fujitsu's high-speed ScanSnap line, which does not use Twain.

 

FirmWorks

Knowledge Concepts

Price: Starts at $300 per user, depending on edition.

www.knowledge.org/firmworks.htm

Document management is just one piece of managing everything that goes on in a typical practice (if there is such a thing). Keeping track of everything else is also vital. FirmWorks focuses on aspects of workflow management, though it is not a true workflow manager in terms of being able to route tasks through a predetermined path. FirmWorks also provides basic document storage and retrieval as well.

That's fine, though. Workflow isn't only about roadmaps through staff members responsible for specific tasks. The other functions that FirmWorks provides have an important part in keeping a practice running smoothly. The application is well-suited for tying together cooperative calendar coordination integrated with other office systems, including MS Mail Merge so that clients can be kept in the loop on the matters and projects that the practice is handling for them.

Resource management is another area that FirmWorks addresses, and is also crucial to workflow productivity in a practice. By tracking task assignments and responsibilities to a particular staff member, and keeping track of progress on that task, administrators can quickly determine if and when a logjam occurs, and where it has to be cleared.

FirmWorks is available in several editions, including ProCPA. Each builds on the previous one, with ProCPA the top of the line.

 

Microsoft SharePoint

Microsoft

Pricing: Varies depending on components and configuration.

www.microsoft.com/sharepoint

Many smaller practices will not want to use SharePoint 2010 as their content management system, due to its complexity. SharePoint 2010 is one of the most comprehensive, sophisticated and flexible content management systems available - but it is not a single component. Rather, it is a foundation (SharePoint 2010 Server) upon which users build a system using different SharePoint applications.

This gives SharePoint an enormous amount of flexibility - you can construct a document management system, Web sites, wikis and workflows, and make all of these work cooperatively. What hat SharePoint wears at any particular time is entirely up to the way components are installed and configured.

Creating these configurations, however, requires a fair amount of technical expertise, not only with the different components available in the SharePoint system, but in Microsoft SQL Server, which is used as the underlying database, as well.

To get an idea of what's involved and what SharePoint can do, you can download the Evaluation and Review Guide and Walkthrough Guide at Microsoft's SharePoint site. Together, they comprise more than 200 pages, and that's before you even start to print the actual SharePoint documentation.

At the same time, SharePoint is popular enough that there are lots of value-added resellers and consultants who will be glad to install and configure a system for you. Just be aware that SharePoint is not an install-and-forget application.

 

PaperPort Professional

Nuance Communications Inc.

Pricing: Single user - $199.

www.nuance.com

For some smaller practices, the document storage and retrieval capabilities of the applications that they run, coupled with a scan-and-store application such as Nuance's PaperPort Professional 12 or Enterprise, may be all that's needed.

PaperPort Professional 12 offers the ability to scan a document to searchable PDFs or a variety of image formats, perform optical character recognition to extract text from scanned files, and even create fill-in forms from scanned documents. You can drop e-mails onto the PaperPort Desktop and perform file type conversions, searches, and storage and retrievals. It even has a Sharepoint connector, a sort of software pipeline that lets data from a scan-and-capture app flow into a more elaborate document management system. This allows PaperPort Professional to act as a front end to Sharepoint.

PaperPort Professional works well as an easy-to-use desktop document organizer, but to implement it firmwide will require that you purchase the more expensive Enterprise version, the price of which needs to be quoted by a sales agent. PaperPort also lacks Web browser access, which might present a problem should your staff frequently need to access your document repository while out of the office. Inquiries and searches need to be performed at the PaperPort desktop level.

 

Office Tools Pro

Practice Management

Office Tools Pro

Pricing: Starts at $500 for a single user.

www.officetoolspro.com

While Office Tools Pro calls its application Practice Management 2011, the term is not quite used the same way that other vendors use it - as enhanced time and billing. Practice Management 2011 has components that apply to the financial side of firm management, many of which allow you to capture time and use the captured data in other applications, such as Word and several tax preparation programs.

In addition to these functions, Practice Management 2011 provides capabilities that deal with workflow management, including comprehensive calendaring and collaboration tools, as well as the ability to store and retrieve documents.

On the document management side, you can create client folders, and simply drag and drop whatever documents you have in electronic format, including PDFs, over into the folder.

Neither of these functions comprises a full document or workflow management system as defined in this roundup, but Practice Management 2011 might fulfill your practice's needs if they aren't too demanding in these areas. Practice Management 2011 might also be helpful as an adjunct to a more comprehensive document or workflow system.

 

FileCabinet CS

The Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters

Pricing: Starts at $1,500.

www.thomsonreuters.com

Many document management applications are designed to stand on their own, though to a large extent they need to be able to integrate with other applications that produce and use the documents stored and indexed.

Some, however, like FileCabinet CS, are not intended as stand-alone applications, but rather as modular parts of a comprehensive practice suite. Thomson Reuters' CS Professional Suite includes modules for many accountant-oriented processes, including practice management, client write-up and tax prep. But while all of the CS Professional Suite uses a single underlying database, that's not necessarily true of the output produced by each modular application.

FileCabinet CS is designed to put all of a client's relevant documents in a single, easily retrievable place. This repository can be supplemented by scanned documents or documents in electronic format created by applications outside of the CS Suite. FileCabinet CS has integrated scanner support, though Thomson Reuters also has an optional service that scans documents and captures client data for input and use in the UltraTax tax prep system.

If you are not using Thomson Reuters' accounting applications in your practice, you may be better off looking at a document management filing system that isn't specifically designed for CS Professional Suite and other Thomson Reuters products. But if your firm is a CS Professional Suite user, FileCabinet CS makes a lot of sense.

 

XCM

XCM Solutions Inc.

Price: $300 per user.

www.xcmsolutions.com

Most of the products in this roundup that are workflow-oriented are adjuncts to another application, such as document management. XCM 8.0, and the edition targeted at sole practitioners and small firms, XCMessential, are strictly designed to be workflow managers.

XCM provides a firm the ability to schedule projects and tasks, establish deadlines, and attach staff responsibility for specific tasks. If routing from one person to others is necessary, XCM will allow you to create a routing map that integrates with Windows Explorer and allows an administrator to see where any task or document resides at a given moment.

For firms that have multiple tasks that are functionally equivalent, a bulk-update capability saves time by letting you add information to more than one task at a time.

XCM is Web-based, and integrates with selected Web-based applications, including ProSystem fx Document. XCM is also available for use by your clients, with XCM Corporate Edition designed for finance departments.

 

Ted Needleman is senior director of the Technical Services Division of Industry Analysts Inc., an independent market research firm and testing laboratory. He was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology, and writes frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects.

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