by L. Gary Boomer

Most people talk only about the benefits of document management and going paperless. While I also strongly advocate the paperless movement, however, I know that firms will quickly learn about their weaknesses when they tackle a paperless project.

Until paperless, it was easy for those who were deficient in information technology skills to hide, either behind other employees who were IT competent or by simply working outside of the firm’s system.

In other words, they have their private “work around” methods. When this occurs, firms become inefficient and develop multiple production methodologies, rather than operating on the one-firm concept.

As Jack Welch said, while at General Electric Co., it does not make sense to have a digital system and a paper system. In today’s environment, paper-based systems are expensive to maintain and generally inefficient. You must commit to eliminating the paper-based system in order to succeed.

Furthermore, a document management project should be approached at the enterprise (firm) level rather than at the departmental level. The firm should look for a client-centric system rather than simply a departmental solution.

Client-centric systems allow the user to search and locate all the documents for a specific client, rather than have client documents spread among various applications such as audit work papers or tax and administrative applications.

While there are some very good applications in the various departments, firms must be careful and develop a firm strategy rather than departmental strategies, which will only promote additional “work around” methods rather than a reliable, integrated system.

In other words, firms should have a master plan when it comes to document management that integrates into the firm’s strategic plan. Most firms do not adequately plan up front, and simply start with a departmental solution such as audit and accounting work papers or tax return preparation.

Back to the weaknesses that document management exposes and some of the obstacles firms must overcome: It is not enough to just identify the obstacles. In order to be successful, you must also develop strategies to overcome those obstacles and then develop consensus and commitment throughout the firm.

This is often difficult and time consuming. Therefore, many firms start by purchasing the hardware and software for document management and then try to figure it out during implementation.

This approach has significant problems that are consistent independent of the hardware and software selected. Therefore, the firms’ standards, policies and procedures, and personnel must be examined in order to identify the issues.

Some of the more common firm weaknesses that a document management project can reveal are:

1. IT incompetence (partners, administrative personnel and staff who are IT incompetent).

2. The need for well defined standards, policies and procedures.

3. The need for a strong training/learning environment.

4. The need for strong firm leadership.

5. The need for a project champion.

6. The need for firm discipline.

7. The lack of a firm strategic plan and document management strategy.

8. Sole proprietors who are sharing overhead rather than acting as a firm.

Now, let’s look at strategies and solutions, along with the ultimate goal of an efficient document management system utilized by all partners, administrative personnel and staff members. You need to:

1. Document processes.

● Eliminate redundancies and take advantage of technology.

● Develop new policies and procedures in a consistent and useable format.

● Create a strong training/ learning environment.

● Obtain commitment from the partner group (support is not enough).

● Hire or contract with a training/learning coordinator.

● Assess requirements and develop a curriculum.

● Conduct mandatory classes.

● Integrate all firm education and CPE.

2. Develop strong leadership.

● Select a firm CEO.

● Operate in a corporate form rather than as a partnership (someone must be responsible).

● Delegate responsibility and authority.

● Utilize task forces.

● Do not grant exemptions for those who are IT illiterate.

● Provide training and help desk assistance.

● Evaluate the firm’s personnel frequently, and terminate those poor performers who do not fit the culture.

3. Develop a firm strategic plan.

● Conduct a firm summit.

● Involve as many people as feasible.

● Utilize outside resources.

● Develop a one-page laminated strategic plan, and one-page plans for other initiatives such as technology, marketing, staffing and document management.

I have only listed a few. There are many other issues to be considered.

One last step! Before you start the project, document where your firm is today. Remember, all progress starts with the truth. Don’t be surprised if you find out that document management is not your highest priority.

You may have other issues and projects that need to be addressed before you start your document management project. Document management and paperless sound exciting, but require a strong management and IT foundation to build upon.

If your firm has some of these described weaknesses (and most do) do not be afraid to seek help in resolving the issues. Ignoring the issues is not a recommended alternative.

L. Gary Boomer, CPA, is the president of Boomer Consulting, in Manhattan, Kan.

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