The concept of the paperless office was first introduced as a futuristic vision at Business Week in 1975, and 30 years later, its realization remains elusive.Although the evolution to a paperless office has been slower than predicted, there has been recent momentum fueled by the development of electronic tools with specific functionalities that drive productivity. The introduction of these products has created some confusion about the roles that each plays, and has raised questions about how best to integrate these tools. This article offers a glimpse at two emerging products - document management systems and automated workflow applications - each critical to the implementation of the "less-paper" office.

Document management

A document management system is a centralized electronic data repository used to track and store electronic documents or paper documents that have been converted to a digital image. A DM system is a virtual file room that not only provides storage and retrieval of data, but also addresses the issues of security and record retention. The key function of a DM system is to eliminate a firm's reliance on physical pieces of paper by providing electronic access to the document from any local or remote location.

DM systems vary based on needs. They can be as simple as saving documents in a folder set up in Windows Explorer, or as sophisticated as a full-blown system specifically designed for the accounting industry that provides for extensive controls and search capabilities.

From a professional end-user standpoint, the key to these systems lies in their ability to facilitate the search and retrieval of documents, with the end goal of improving client service and becoming more productive. From the administrative-user standpoint, DM systems are all about versioning, archiving and control.

Automated workflow

Workflow is the movement of documents, tasks, work and responsibilities throughout the office. Workflow identifies the particular process by which work is to be completed by defining the tasks, determining the order in which they are undertaken and assigning the person responsible for completing them. Workflow applications are designed to consider the time consumed at each phase of the process and collect information that is essential to completing the task.

Automated workflow solutions increase efficiency by providing employees access to a standardized process that can be used both locally and remotely. This increased efficiency ultimately results in increased profitability.

While DM systems have been available to CPAs for over five years, automated workflow is new to the industry.

Up until now, workflow processes established at CPA firms consisted of moving piles of files throughout the office. The appearance of a file on one's desk implied responsibility for completing a step in the process. Movement of the file from one desk to another implied the shift of responsibility from one person to another.

This paper-based workflow lacks control, and unless a firm is extremely disciplined about documenting the movement of files from place to place, it is extremely difficult and time-consuming to locate files or to determine the status of a given task. Chaos and disorganization are the obvious by-products of this manual process, especially during the busy season.

Automated workflow solutions allow CPA firms not only to standardize the workflow process within the firm, but also to minimize the chaos and disorganization. Automated workflow solutions route work through the office. Employees work within the application, record their questions, and review points, assembly and shipping instructions and any other information necessary to complete the return or task. Tracking information is automatically generated within the application, allowing instant access to the status of a project.

The benefits of automating the workflow process are staggering when considering how much time a firm wastes manually shuffling and searching for files throughout the office.

Implementing an automated workflow solution will result in better reporting, metrics and compliance for firm administrators - all in a real-time environment. This electronic workflow substantially reduces non-billable time, resulting in increased profitability.

Automated workflow applications can be implemented without a DM system. However, a DM system is most effective when paired with an automated workflow application.

Firms that are investing in a DMS are finding that converting documents into a digital format before the work is completed yields huge efficiency savings. However, once the documents are digitized, there are no longer files to move around the office to establish workflow. The integration of automated workflow and a DM system solves this problem.

Once documents are stored in the DMS, the automated workflow solution digitally routes the work throughout the office toward completion, while simultaneously allowing users instant access to a project's status. Successful integration of the emerging technologies allows firms to control the workflow process, while maximizing profitability and improving client service.

Mark Albrecht, CPA, is a tax partner with KAF Financial Group and chief executive of XCM Solutions (www.xcmsolutions.com). Reach him at (781) 356-5152.

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