During one hectic tax filing season, the Philadelphia-based CPA firm of Asher & Co. Ltd. managed their clients' tax return forms the same way most firms do - by placing them in piles on the floor or shelves.

Last year, however, the tax preparation process moved to a more organized approach by employing a workflow system. "Basically, we saw the writing on the wall," said the firm's partner/director, William Burns, who selected Immediatech's GoFileRoom and its workflow features. "Before, we'd give someone a return to do and the feedback came in piecemeal. You don't know who has it in the process or where it is. Before, we'd send a voicemail out to everyone asking who had it. It's clearly a lot of benefit, because now we know where everything is in the system."

Workflow systems and tools within document management systems claim to help CPAs during their busiest time of the year - tax season - and while more of these systems are available today, they are still relatively fresh on the business software scene.

"I'm not sure if we saved much time because of the learning curve last year," said Zvi Gold, partner and CPA at Goldstein Schechter Price Lucas Horwitz & Co. PA. The firm also engaged Immediatech's GoFileRoom last year in July. "But we got a lot of positive feedback from the staff, and it will be even better the next time around."

Over the past couple of years, a scattering of workflow features and stand-alone applications have become available through document management system providers like Immediatech and CCH, as well as tax preparation outsourcers Xpitax and SurePrep.

The systems are forcing a more structured workflow on CPA firms to keep their tax prep forms and other financial documents more organized.

"CPAs spend very little time making the preparation process efficient," said Mark Albrecht, partner at accounting firm KAF Financial Group and chief executive officer at outsourcing and workflow systems provider Xpitax. Both companies are based in Braintree, Mass. "CPAs tend to be driven by thinking in terms of billable time times rate equals what I earn in revenue. There is little focus on internal workflow and how to make it the most efficient. With little staff out there, people are looking at this as a way to help resolve that lack of staffing to make people become more efficient and productive."

The ways in which the workflow systems and features try to help CPA firms become efficient take on a number of approaches. Depending on the system that the CPA firm is using, and the firm's paperless level or paperless goals, the workflow process can take many shapes.

If a firm wants to be completely paperless and uses Xpitax's Client Manager, they can scan all the source documents into the system and use that information to enter data into their tax preparation software. Using dual monitors, the preparer can type in questions to the partner, reviewer or client from his own personalized Xpitax homepage while working on the return.

Once done with the tax prep work, the CPA can then assign the return to a partner, reviewer or client, and an e-mail notification will be sent to the corresponding person. The CPA can also track who has the return, and see the routing and question history of the return, among a number of other tools. However, the system does not actually integrate with the tax-prep software.

SurePrep Express, also a stand-alone workflow application from Newport Beach, Calif.-based tax outsourcer SurePrep, functions somewhat differently from Xpitax, even though it too offers helpful e-mail alerts. SurePrep, however, is set up so that an accountant can pass off data entry within popular tax prep packages like RIA's GoSystem Tax, CCH's ProSystem fx and Intuit's Lacerte to administrative assistants.

"It significantly reduces the amount of time professionals have to spend preparing tax returns," said Bret Wier, vice president of sales and marketing for SurePrep. "It allows professionals to offload 30 to 50 percent of their data entry to nonprofessionals, who don't have to know anything about accounting."

Lacerte Tax has a similar workflow feature that, while not offering e-mail notifications or assignment options like the outsourcers' products do, does perform the tracking and monitoring services that many users find helpful - and all from within the tax preparation software itself.

While many accountants do not like to admit it, during tax season things become disorganized, said Wendy Grice, associate product marketing manager for CPA software at international software provider Sage.

"A common occurrence during busy season is that many hands hit a project," said Grice. "Many times the paperwork gets stuck on someone's desk while they are out or gets lost under piles of paper. Unless the next person in line knows when to be expecting it, it can get lost in the shuffle."

Sage has had a workflow system that can be used for tax prep as well as other projects for roughly 10 years. However, the company refers to it as project management. A module within Sage's CPAPractice Manager software tracks the history of a return, monitors the budget to actual costs and marks time against a project, all either on the user's desktop or over the Web through a Citrix server. Alerts can be set up to say if the budget has been overdrawn for a project; however, there are no automatic notifications to the next person responsible for looking at the return.

"It's definitely the wave of the future," explained Goldstein Schechter's Gold, "and we want to be closer to the leading edge."

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