Practice management, as an application, appears differently to different viewers. To some, practice management is all about revenue management. To others, it’s about time management, and to yet others, it’s about project management.Practice management encompasses all of these areas and more. At its most basic definition, practice management is about resource management. Every firm is constrained by the resources that it has available, including staff hours and availability, and economic factors. A good practice management system allows a firm to maximize the use of these resources through awareness of how staff time is employed, making sure that the right resources are applied to the right tasks, and that revenue is generated in a profitable manner and collected in an appropriate time.

Many accounting practices are afraid of practice management, and restrict themselves to time and billing, relying heavily of the “billing” component of the application. That’s entirely understandable: Revenue generation and collection is a vital function of any enterprise, even nonprofits. Without the ability to pay your staff and meet overhead, you won’t have a practice.

At the same time, time is a non-renewable resource — once it’s gone, there’s no getting it back. And staff time that goes unused, or is misspent on tasks that can be done by less expensive staff, reflects resources down the tube.

A good practice management system lets you uncover this misuse. Sometimes you have no choice — you simply need to get a task accomplished and to do so, you need to use whomever is available. But good management implies an understanding of numerous factors in your practice, including whether your staff is meeting expected goals, and how profitable your clients are. If one or both of these is not being accomplished, you need to know about it, and uncover the reasons why these shortfalls are happening.

Picking the right practice management system is not as simple as building a punch list of features. You need to examine how it will be integrated with your current workflow and staff. Human factors are important in this decision. If your staff finds the system too awkward or overly restrictive, they will be resistant to adopt it. The same holds true if they feel that the only reason that the application is being implemented is to spy on them or uncover slackers.

Some practice management (and time and billing) applications make the assumption that there is a “standard” workweek, be it 35, 37.5 or 40 hours, and that every full-time staff member’s time sheets have to add up to that standard. This approach is common, and it’s important that your staff understands that this “standard” workweek includes non-billable and often nonproductive time. If the application encourages time padding, it may work for the revenue management area, but it’s not going to serve the management functions it’s being implemented to provide.

While office and laptop PCs are getting more powerful, most of the applications we tested don’t require a powerhouse PC in order to run well. We did our testing on a Lenovo Core Duo ThinkPad X61 notebook, and all of the applications ran very nicely. Keep in mind, however, that practice management is a core and mission-critical application in any practice. This type of application should always be run on a reliable system, using an uninterruptible power supply, and maintaining good backup protocols.

CASEWARE TIME 2008

Several of the products in the roundup are parts of a comprehensive suite of applications targeted towards accountants. Some are designed as stand-alone applications that can be used with other vendors’ offerings. CaseWare is somewhere in the middle. The vendor does not offer a complete suite, but the applications that it does offer, which include Time; Working Papers, a trial balance/write-up package; and Idea, the well-known auditing software, are all meant for accounting practice use. Along with Time 2008, CaseWare also markets an add-on, Today, which acts as a two-way conduit between Time and Microsoft Outlook.

Time 2008’s user interface, which was unusual when it was first introduced, has become fairly mainstream, as other vendors have adopted similar approaches. An Explorer-like vertical task list runs along the left side of the screen. This also serves to easily allow a user to use the powerful document editing and management capabilities. The rightmost pane provides checklists of workflow tasks, while the center pane is where tasks are actually performed.

This workflow approach is very effective, and provides a bird’s-eye view of the systems in place for managing different areas of the practice, from billing, to due date reminders, to customer relationship management, to utilization and realization reports.

CaseWare Time 2008 is built around a document management foundation. Documents are created for engagement letters, invoices and statements, and numerous other tasks, and are easily retrieved and used through the interface in the leftmost pane.

In addition to being easy to use, Time 2008 is also comprehensive. The Project Monitor capabilities let you know where the firm stands on all current engagements, and reports are easy to edit or analyze using Microsoft Office applications, including Word and Excel.

Time 2008 still lacks a remote data entry capability or stand-alone timers, though there are five embedded timers that can be used to capture multiple client tasks by switching from one to another as needed.

Time 2008 is a bit beyond entry level, and not quite as feature-rich as some of the more expensive packages. It is, however, a unique and well-thought-out approach to the most common concerns.

CCH PROSYSTEM FX PRACTICE MANAGEMENT

Along with Thomson Tax & Accounting, CCH has emerged as one of the powerhouse vendors when it comes to providing a comprehensive suite of accounting-oriented applications.

This year, CCH offers three versions of its Practice Management application. The Enterprise Edition, which we looked at but did not test, uses the Microsoft SQL database as its foundation, while the Office Edition uses SQL Express, Microsoft’s free version of SQL. The Basic Edition, which is the version we reviewed, cuts back on features slightly, and does not use SQL for the underlying engine. The Basic Edition starts at $610 for a two-user license, and is affordable for a sole practitioner or small practice.

Most firm administrators will probably go for the more expensive Office or Enterprise Editions, as these have project tracking and additional management reports that are lacking in the Basic Edition, which is more of a time and billing solution than a full-blown practice management system.

CCH also offers some add-on modules that significantly enhance Practice Management, such as ProSystem fx Engagement, which lets you track all aspects of firm engagements, including tax prep and write-up. The Practice Driver module is a data mining and analysis tool, which can display firm and client data in a variety of formats including dashboards. And Internet Time Entry makes it easy for staff on the road to keep their time and expense entries up to date.

The design of Practice Management is such that only a minimal amount of training should be necessary to get staff up and running with it. An Explorer-like windowpane on the left side of the screen shows the various types of tasks and entries that can be made in an expanding and collapsing tree format. Actual work on the task takes place in the center panel, and there are tabs and buttons to take a user through specific subtasks.

Timers are available to capture task duration, and remote timers can be installed on a laptop so that staff time can be captured even if they aren’t running the Practice Management application. Practice Management has over 70 reports covering all phases of the application, and these can be extensively customized, printed to PDF format, and e-mailed. A Custom Report Wizard takes care of more specialized or ad hoc report needs.

Obviously, ProSystem fx Practice Management will appeal to current users of other CCH applications. However, it is certainly not restricted to those users, especially in the Office of Basic Editions.

COMMERCIAL LOGIC PRACTICE ENGINE

Commercial Logic is well known in the practice management market, having fielded the very successful PowerPM application for years. Several years ago, CLI became the U.S. and Canadian distributor of the Practice Engine, a high-end, server-based practice management application developed by Practice Engine Group Ltd. The Practice

Engine is not part of a suite of accountant-oriented applications, but can integrate with existing applications using Excel.

Due to time constraints, we tested the Practice Engine on CLI’s server, rather than installing it on our own. Set-up is likely to be a bit more complex than most of the other applications we tested for this roundup, largely due to the use of Microsoft SQL Server. CLI is very upfront about the fact that Practice Engine is not targeted for smaller firms, and that the size practices that already use Practice Engine, or are likely to implement it, will have the IT expertise in place to perform the installation and setup.

Practice Engine is run in thin client/server mode, which means that the only thing a client workstation needs is a Web browser. All of the application and data files are maintained on the server. The software currently supports Internet Explorer, with Apple Safari support in the works. Practice Engine was developed as a Web 2.0 application, designed to be run from a Web browser (even on an internal network), rather than being adapted to this approach. Our test was conducted over a broadband connection and ran very smoothly.

In using Practice Engine, there are some things that look very familiar, and others that are less so. Because PE is designed for an enterprise-level practice, it is easily capable of handling offices in multiple locations, even if they are in different countries and use different currencies. Practice Engine can also deal easily with different entities under a broad organizational umbrella.

Because PE allows the underlying database to be modified to an extent, it can have user-defined client and staff attributes, in addition to the more common extra fields. The firm can also define relationships, creating what CLI and PE call a “web of opportunity.” This strong emphasis on CRM is a powerful feature, and relationships with other professionals such as attorneys, bankers and the like can be easily established and tracked.

Using the Practice Engine, it’s easy to drill down to detail, and PE provides exceptionally strong due date tracking, task management, and scheduling capabilities. A central dashboard provides a good overview of firm details, including billing exposure. Standard reports are easy to read, and it’s not difficult to create ad hoc reports using a SQL query, Access or Crystal Reports. Reports can be printed, e-mailed, sent to Excel or made into a PDF file.

Practice Engine is probably overkill for many of the firms in Accounting Today’s readership, but its pricing schedule actually makes it affordable for practices much smaller than CLI’s target market, and it’s a very well-thought-out and constructed approach to practice management, regardless of the size of the firm implementing it.

IMAGINETIME

As with several of the applications included in this roundup, ImagineTime starts with a time and billing core and adds functionality that brings it into the category of a basic practice management system. Unlike some of the applications we tested, ImagineTime was designed by CPAs for use by accountants, so there’s no “generic” wording, or special configuration necessary to use familiar wording such as “engagement,” rather than “case.” It’s a little thing, but just one of the things that makes ImagineTime a pleasure to use.

At its core, ImagineTime describes itself as time and billing, and nicely designed screens and time tracker make it easy to capture time and expense data. Optional Palm and PocketPC modules let you capture data with a PDA, and a new module supports the BlackBerry.

Where ImagineTime segues into practice management is in the comprehensive management reports that it produces. These let you produce realization reports in a number of formats, which help you understand how the resources in your practice are being applied. We also like the excellent due date monitor, which includes a tax tickler/status tracker and task monitor. This is available separately and can be used with other vendors’ applications.

Options include a contact calendar and sync with Microsoft Outlook, and a module to enable remote data entry, which is almost a necessity for mobile staff members.

ImagineTime isn’t overly fancy, but it is nicely designed and laid-out. It’s a good entry-level practice management application, and the reasonable price makes it affordable even by very small practices who want something beyond basic time and billing.

OFFICE TOOLS PRO PROFESSIONAL SUITE

Many practice management applications are targeted for a specific market, such as accountants, consultants or lawyers. The Office Tools Pro Professional Suite is easily usable by any of the above professionals, but is not specifically targeted towards any of them.

As its name implies, the suite is an integrated set of tools. While its time and billing module does accomplish the basics of invoicing, the Professional Suite has a tight integration with QuickBooks, so you can easily use the comprehensive invoicing and statement features of that application to extend those available in the suite. You can also use the Office Tools application for this, as it has a capable time and expense capture screen, and can manage multiple timers to capture time spent on client tasks as it occurs. Receivables management is handled with numerous reports and invoicing and client statements.

The Professional Suite’s real strength lies in the other modules. These include a very easy-to-use set of contact management tools, a scheduling module that handles your appointments and provides reminders of appointments and generates confirmation letters to send or e-mail to your clients, and a project reporting module that lets you keep track of due dates.

Office Tools Pro Professional Suite even includes a credible records and document management capability. Of course, none of these modules competes with full-fledged applications, but for many small and midsized practices, the modules will suffice nicely and offer the additional advantage of being very easy to learn and use.

Finally, if you don’t need all modules, or have other applications that provide sufficient capability in some of these areas, Office Tools Pro offers a “standard” suite as well. This lets you choose three of the modules, and is a bit less expensive.

Office Tools Pro Professional Suite provides some necessary capabilities for true practice management, but is light when it comes to understanding and applying practice resources. Still, at the price, it is a good value if you are just getting into integrating your firm’s overall management capabilities.

THOMSON TAX & ACCOUNTING PRACTICE CS

Thomson bought Creative Solutions almost two decades ago, and is finally getting around to putting its name on the division. Regardless of whether that’s a good move or a confusing one, the fact remains that regardless of whose name is on the company, it was one of the first in the industry to recognize the need for an integrated suite of accountant-oriented applications all sharing one common set of databases. That approach, and the overall quality of its applications, have resulted in its remaining a dominant force in the market for over two decades.

Practice CS’s user interface makes it easy to use. While the application has a number of data entry screens (which, by the way, are extensively customizable) and screens to employ filters, the entry point for both users and administrators is a dashboard. The Staff Dashboard presents the staff with a single unified place to access other applications such as Outlook and FileCabinet CS documents (if that application is installed). Task summaries and a time recap are also visible on this screen.

Similar dashboards are available for client information and actions, as well as a Firm Dashboard for the administrator(s) that presents an overall picture of work in progress, billing activity, staff hours and accounts receivable. All of the figures on any of the dashboards allow drill-down into detail.

The suite has many advanced features in common that are reflected in Practice CS. These include data entry fields that can be moved or hidden, extensive report customization, and the ability to add custom fields or use custom terminology.

As with many practice management and time and billing applications, Practice CS has integrated timers, but the application must be open and running to use them. Timeslips still has the lead in this area, allowing you to install and run just the timer module.

A project management module is an extra cost option, but firms intending to implement true practice management will want to add the capabilities it provides. These include the ability to set up project templates for similar types of engagements and notifications to staff members, and import status from the UltraTax CS tax prep packages.

TIMESLIPS 2008 BY SAGE

Timeslips is hard to categorize. Sage bills Timeslips as ideal for any business that bills for its time, which puts it solidly in the time and billing category. Indeed, Timeslips is probably the premier and prototypical application in this category.

At the same time, Timeslips has evolved considerably in the more than two decades that it has been around. Of course, tracking time and expenses is still a core function of Timeslips 2008, as is generating bills. It was one of the first applications to automate a virtual electronic time slip, and this approach is still pretty much used today, not only with Timeslips, but in virtually every application that tracks time. This latest version continues to automate the process of capturing time, allowing submission of time slips by e-mail, and integrating time and appointments detailed in Outlook into the timekeeping engine in Timeslips. Multiple timers are available to track client-oriented tasks as they occur.

Add-ons provide additional time capture capabilities: The Timeslips eCenter is a remote entry facility for timekeepers; Timeslips Remote can be used by laptop users away from the office; and TimeReporter for Timeslips and Time to Time Pro provide remote timekeeping and capture capabilities for users of the Palm OS and PocketPC OS devices, respectively.

The thing that lifts Timeslips out of the category of a simple time and billing application is its reporting capabilities. For the most part, these are concentrated on revenue. There are, however, reports that address staff utilization, and it’s not exceedingly difficult to produce customized or ad hoc reports using the available filters.

For many users who need a more sophisticated system, Timeslips will not be a good solution. It is, however, a good application for a firm that’s trying to migrate to a somewhat less revenue-centric approach to practice management.

Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.

Vendor Information

CaseWare Time 2008

CaseWare International Inc.

Toronto

(416) 867-9504

www.caseware.com

Pricing: Single license — $499; one to five users — $999; more than five — add $175 per user.

CCH ProSystem fx Office

Practice Management

CCH Inc.

Torrance, Calif.

(800) 45-PROFX

www.prosystemfx.com

Pricing: Two users — $610.

Commercial Logic

Practice Engine

Commercial Logic Inc.

West Lebanon, N.H.

(800) 654-0425

www.cli-usa.com

Pricing: Per user, in units of five user licenses — one to 100 users, $400 per; 101-300 users — $300 per; over 301 users, $200 per.

ImagineTime

ImagineTime Inc.

Bostic, N.C.

(877) 520-1525

www.imaginetime.com

Pricing: Single user — $295; starter network package — $495.

Office Tools Pro

Professional Suite

Office Tools Pro

Lancaster, Calif.

(888) 667-8440

www.officetoolspro.com

Pricing: Sole proprietor — $350; single user — $550; five users — $1,250.

Practice CS

Thomson Tax and Accounting

Dexter, Mich.

(800) 968-8900

www.cs.thomson.com

Pricing: Up to five timekeepers — $1,200; additional timekeepers — $400 per group of five; project management — $500; client management — $300.

Timeslips 2008 by Sage

Sage Software

Norcross, Ga.

(800) 285-0999

www.timeslips.com

Pricing: Single user — $499; five seats — $899; 10 users — $1,599.

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