by Gail Perry

Several larger accounting firms, led by Big Four firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, are finding that a relatively new technology has put them on the cutting edge of staff collaboration.

And while collaboration software, such as Lotus Notes, has been around for more than a decade, there’s a new kid on the block that’s sure to shake up the way auditors share information when working in the field.

The latest technological breakthrough is a collaboration program that enables its users to link their computers together in a wireless, peer-to-peer network — a network that requires no server, no access point and no base station.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has teamed with Vancouver-based Colligo Network Inc., to develop a customized version of a software product that is now being used throughout the worldwide network of PwC’s more than 150,000 employees in 150 countries.

The software is a collaboration program that enables computers equipped with the Colligo Workgroup Edition software to connect their computers through an ad hoc network, enabling synchronization, file sharing and instant messaging, as well as shared access to the Internet and to external devices such as printers.

Users can operate all of their existing programs without any changes in the way that the programs operate. PwC uses Colligo Workgroup Edition in conjunction with the Lotus Notes program where the firm has stored audit tools. Individual audit team members enter information into their software applications, on their own computers, but can at any time initiate a synchronization process that will update their files to incorporate work done by other team members on other computers.

“You basically push one button to replicate,” stated Michael Calyniuk, president and chief executive of PwC’s  Global  Licensing Services Corp. and audit partner in PwC’s Vancouver office. “Everybody on the wireless network is immediately synched so that they’re all working off a common set of data.”

Instant messaging, calendar scheduling and device-sharing are all part of the package, and while the ability to communicate via a private network is convenient, it’s the ongoing synchronization of workpaper files that really dazzles the auditors who use the program.

“Typically, the way the accounting profession is going, more and more is being done electronically,” explained Barry Jinks, president and chief executive of Colligo Networks. “With Sarbanes-Oxley and other requirements coming down, it’s very important that the workflow is traceable and controlled.”

How it works
In a typical Colligo scenario, a team of auditors goes to a client location, with each auditor carrying a notebook computer loaded with all the software needed for the job, the client workpaper files that are needed, and the Colligo application. Once at the client location, as soon as computers are turned on, Colligo software seeks out and recognizes all members within the network’s range, sets up a local network, and links them to the ad hoc network. There is no server — each computer is an equal participant in the network.

The auditors work on separate components of the audit job, each one fulfilling a particular assignment. At any time, an auditor can request that Colligo synchronize the computers of the group members. “When you want to replicate between team members, you just press a button on the application, it literally goes out there and collects all the changes, and shoots all those changes to everyone, in the background,” explained Jinks. Network participants are alerted that a synchronization is about to occur, and they can indicate whether or not they want to participate.

Other firms come on board
This year, national firm Crowe Chizek deployed Colligo throughout its firm in all of its offices. “Any place where we do any auditing, Colligo is our workgroup communication tool for when an auditor goes to a client site,” said Lamont Long, IT director for the Indianapolis-based firm.

Long explained that, prior to using the Colligo Workgroup Edition, the firm supplied auditors with what he called a “network in a box,” so they could share files and information when out on a job. “They’d take a server with them,” on audits, said Long. “It was a custom-made suitcase we outfitted — quite cumbersome.”

Although Colligo is designed for wireless networks, including notebook computers and PDAs, it works on wired networks, as well. Crowe Chizek uses the application on wired computers.

Grant Thornton also used to send server equipment out with its auditors before adding the Colligo collaboration software to the auditors’ computers. Dave Johnson, director of infrastructure technology for Chicago-based Grant Thornton, described the temporary networks as “kludgy at best,” and said that the firm originally acquired Colligo to replace the hubs and cables that auditors would take to client engagements.

Johnson especially liked the fact that audit team members from different offices who don’t work together regularly can function as one unit with their private network. “What’s nice is our professional staff, regardless of their physical location, can be looked at as a single entity,” said Johnson. “They can go to any [client] location and immediately be a team and become effective. Nationwide, we use this very consistently.”

Now that Grant Thornton has acquired Colligo for all of its U.S. auditors, the firm is finding other advantages to the collaboration software. Users with wireless computers don’t have to be in the same room with one another as long as they are within the range limitations of the 802.11b network. Commonly called Wi-Fi, 802.11b refers to a wireless interface between computers (as well as other communication devices, including PDAs).

Not only can users spread out at a client location and remain on the network (the advertised range is 300 feet, but the physical barriers and the strength of the wireless connections on the participating computers can reduce that maximum range), but auditors who are burning the midnight oil can even network in the privacy of their hotel rooms.

“If they happen to be across the hall or next door, or even a couple of doors down, they’ve been able to collaborate even after hours from their hotel rooms,” said Johnson.

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