by L. Gary Boomer

Everyone in the accounting profession is talking about paperless, or at least less paper, within their firms.

When asked what paperless means, most practitioners have a variety of answers depending on their practice specialty. To add to the confusion, many major vendors and some very new ones are advertising "the" paperless solution.

Firms are already in the less paper mode thanks to the documents that they store on servers and local hard drives. Still, most firms still have tons of paper and are creating more paper every day.

Bill Gates was recently interviewed by Fortune Magazine about Longhorn, Microsoft’s

codename for its next desktop operating system. During that interview, he discussed ease of use and made the following quote: "Right now, file space on any PC is a cesspool. The file system should be more like e-mail archives, where you can search and sort by any of a number of criteria.

"And it’s got to be snappy as heck," Gates added. "Everything is just a document whether it’s music or video or e-mail or whatever. Each will have a name and a history, and every user will have his or her favorites."

This should give you some insight about Gates’ thoughts on document management. And if you think of Longhorn as Microsoft’s next version of Windows, his thoughts are important, as they might indicate some future solutions.

But back to today and the document management issues that firms face. Many firms have initiated paperless projects and many more are just getting started. Many of the projects are departmental solutions, such as tax or audit.

Few firms have looked at "enterprise" solutions. In planning how your firm should proceed with document management, here are some important questions that you should consider.

  • Are you looking for a firm, departmental or application solution?
  • Do you need a trial balance application with work paper containers?
  • Do you need practice aids and guidance in performing various types of engagements?
  • Do you need to access documents from remote locations?
  • Do you need version and checkout controls over documents?
  • Do you need to archive documents offsite?
  • Do you need to quickly retrieve all types of documents by client?
  • Do you need to manage e-mail and other related documents within the system?
  • Do you need to retain and manage client prepared documents?
  • Do you need to publish to a secure site for client access (private client site)?
  • If you require private client sites, do you want to outsource the hosting?
  • Is your firm willing to standardize and follow defined policies and procedures?
  • Is your firm willing to train employees including partners?
  • Do you have a project champion and project team?
  • Do you have a budget and project timeline?

As you review the list, you will probably draw several conclusions. The pioneers have found that document management requires major investments in time and resources and it requires discipline. They may have also found that no single vendor offers all the solutions in this field.The rewards are significant in timesaving and efficiency if properly implemented. When making the move, it is best to set priorities and proceed in phases.
A team effort is necessary to plan, implement and manage the project. The team will probably require external resources. Standards, policies and procedures are a must in order to succeed, and training is critical.

Decision-makers in accounting firms are generally persuaded by the numbers or the return on investment. See the table for a model that allows firms to review their own numbers and assumptions.

Firms that have been using document management for over a year tell me that it is at least a break-even proposition in year one, and that significant savings in time and efficiency come in years two and three.

Most firms have already invested in some of the hardware and software that is necessary to get to a paperless office, therefore, the results will vary from firm to firm based on the assumptions that you use.

The project in any firm is a major undertaking and there will be pain. The decision you have in front of you is whether or not to attack the project and get through the pain in a short amount of time or to slowly endure the pain for a number of years.

Your firm will have to make that decision. Those who are bold tend to be successful, while those who experiment tend to get frustrated and start again and again.

I encourage you to enter your numbers into the model shown and make the appropriate assumptions, as the project will impact all areas of your practice. Leadership and maintaining the firm’s confidence throughout the project are important factors. Your peers are succeeding and so can you!

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