Is your firm currently managing workflow through a combination of spreadsheets and Microsoft Outlook? Are you mailing CDs or, worse yet, paper?

Are you plugging your tax data in manually?

If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, this upcoming tax season is an opportune time to embrace new technology. You can improve your firm's profits and your staff's productivity by applying current technologies and techniques.

"How many carpenters do you know that are still using hand saws? I'm always amazed by how poorly accountants implement technology," said Rob Carmines, a partner at Carmines & Robbins. The Virginia-based firm has been paperless since 1999 and Carmines stressed the importance of employing new technologies.

"I don't know exactly what it costs us to use the Thomson Reuters suite of products, but I know it would cost me a lot not to use it," he added.

For the upcoming tax season, Jim Boomer, CPA and CIO of Kansas-based Boomer Consulting, recommended that preparers consider technologies such as scanning source document data directly into tax forms, client portals and workflow for 2010.

SCAN IT

Scanning products have advanced from just capturing images and producing indexed PDFs, to extracting data from W-2s and 1099s and populating the appropriate fields in tax prep software.

"For the upcoming tax season, I want to work easier from the scanned image," said Carmines. "I want to work with a product that can put documents in order for me, help me name pages and tag documents."

CCH's ProSystem fx Scan has been revamped to do more recognition and to begin data entry into ProSystem fx Tax. Data can be extracted from 1040 source documents and the product will provide verification of this extracted information and allow for real-time import of the verified 1040 information directly into ProSystem fx Tax.

Thomson Reuters has made 1040 workpaper-sorting available for both UltraTax CS and GoSystem Tax RS with UltraTax CS Source Data Entry and ScanFlow. And Intuit's Document eSort recognizes a wide variety of scanned tax documents and organizes them into a tax-return-ready electronic file. Firms can access and view the organized source documents directly from their Lacerte or ProSeries tax preparation software.

Meanwhile, Carmines feels that third-party companies, such as Copanion, will become a popular option for firms due to their ability to organize tax documents for firms.

Copanion's GruntWorx identifies and bookmarks scanned source documents, and GruntWorx Pro enables firms to upload scanned source documents in batches and receive a single PDF for use in tax preparation. It can also extract data from documents and import the information into the GoSystem Tax RS tax organizer. In the future, they plan to work with Thomson Reuters' Ultra Tax line and CCH's ProSystem fx. It is also the engine for Intuit's Document eSort.

GO WITH THE FLOW

A further extension of the scan-and-populate software is applications that can change the overall workflow of a tax engagement. "Workflow tools are very important. They can streamline processes, force standardization and compliance, and promote one-way workflow, eliminating loops in the process," said Boomer. There are several products that can help control workflow. SurePrep's 1040Scan is a secure, Web-based system with four tax seasons behind it, and its population features have been used to process more than 125,000 tax returns. 1040Scan's population capabilities integrate with GoSystem Tax RS, ProSystem fx Tax and Lacerte to automatically extract data from scanned documents for preparing client 1040 returns.

Meanwhile, XCM's Web-based workflow management software controls all the processes for completing work within a firm. XCM provides a central location for storing all the unstructured data related to a particular client project - including important bits of knowledge scribbled on note pads or shared through e-mail that find their way into a client file.

James Bourke, CPA, CITP and WithumSmith+Brown's partner-in-charge of technology, explained, "I did not want a workflow solution that only tracked the work flowing through one discipline of the practice. I felt the solution needed to be practice-wide."

In October, the Red Bank, N.J.-based firm deployed XCM's workflow solution for every work product that was processed by the firm.

"During tax season, while our professionals were out of the office and on the road, they were able for the first time to see the status of all of their jobs and to see exactly where the jobs were waiting on their desk for action to be taken." Workflow solutions not only help your staff make better use of their time - they increase your customer service. "When a client calls to get an update, a quick search in the workflow solution allows you to instantaneously respond to the client's inquiry," Bourke explained.

GAINING MOMENTUM

Portals continue to gain momentum each year, according to Carmines. "We remind our clients just as much if not more on how to use the portal. We completed over 1,000 1040s last tax season and a couple of hundred clients used the electronic organizers and portals."

However, Boomer feels that training is critical to their adoption, both internally and externally: "Too often, this is overlooked, and if partners don't know how to use the portal, they will discount the technology as too difficult to use and certainly won't train their clients on how to use them."

He feels that portals can help firms save money, better meet client expectations, and improve the firm's image. Meanwhile, firm clients can benefit because they have access to their tax and accounting information via the Internet whenever they want it, and thus the turnaround time for deliverables is reduced due to increased speed of sharing documents.

ADDING VALUE

Boomer feels that social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, play an important role in the future of accounting firms. "I don't think it has been completely determined how these technologies will ultimately provide value to a business in the future. However, many firms are already leveraging these technologies for business purposes," he added. "Some of these include marketing your firm to both potential employees and clients. This is where the next generation is interacting, and social media offers a great way to touch a large number of people quickly for free."

SEIZING THE FUTURE

Boomer Consulting's Jim Boomer provided a number of strategic steps for firms to take to assimilate emerging technologies, partic­ularly social media.

1. Establish yourself and your firm online. Create a profile and learn the basics of using these technologies.

2. Leverage new technologies, rather than fighting them. We saw the same concerns of professionalism and wasting time when the Internet entered the workplace.

3. Talk to younger employees and start learning from them. Young professionals may have great ideas on how these technologies can be leveraged in your firm.

4. Create tasks forces to explore ways to leverage these technologies. Include a good mix of young (digital native) and older (digital immigrant) professionals.

5. Learn how others in your network are using social media in their businesses.

(c) 2009 Accounting Today and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

http://www.webcpa.com/ http://www.sourcemedia.com/

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