It's well accepted that the firm of the future will succeed (or fail) as a result of applying new technology and software.

Choosing software to run an accounting firm can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Frequently it's difficult to find a single vendor that provides an all-in-one solution, which can encompass everything a firm needs. There are best-of-breed solutions for each niche (such as tax, audit, etc.), but sometimes using the best niche product can lead to problems.

Frequently, silos of information are built based on the type of work being done for the client. These silos are stored in different software packages and it can be difficult to find a complete view of the client's work product without using several different applications. Most of this information is stored as documents (tax returns, write-ups, etc.). The firm of the future must rely on an electronic document management system to store a client's information in the most efficient manner possible. A third-party EDMS can also be used to integrate the other line-of-business applications and combine the documents from those into a single information silo.

Efficiency is the watchword for any accounting firm in today's marketplace. With the current economic climate, it is likely that your clients are examining all expenses and looking for alternatives or requesting changes. In order to remain competitive, firms must continue providing the same or better level of service with a reduced level of expenses. Simply put, firms must "do more for less." There are four ways in which an EDMS can improve firm efficiency:

* It can reduce the labor involved in storing and handling paper documents. This is by far the biggest component of the return on investment of an EDMS.

* It can reduce the space necessary to store paper documents.

* It can increase the ability to comply with appropriate regulations.

* It can allow employees to collaborate and work remotely, thereby decreasing the amount of office space necessary, particularly during the heavy seasonal periods when temporary employees are needed.

Almost all of the line-of-business applications used by accounting firms also incorporate some sort of document management system within the confines of the application. The problem, as mentioned previously, is that these document management systems are frequently not able to accommodate all of the documents that the firm requires. This becomes a real problem when trying to build a single information source for each client.

The following features are necessary in any robust document management system:

* Maintaining a repository of electronic documents;

* Providing a mechanism for securing the documents;

* Integrating with other software solutions being used;

* Providing a method for putting the documents into a defined workflow;

* Supplying audit data providing the four W's (who, what, where, when); and,

* Complying with regulatory requirements related to retention, back-up, security, etc.

A worthy goal, and perhaps the No. 1 contributor in making a firm more efficient, is to have a single repository that contains all information about a client's work product. A system such as this would have to integrate successfully with the end product of the other applications being used. There are two integration points for any EDMS. The first is getting documents into the system. The second is retrieving the documents when necessary and as unobtrusively as possible.

A good EDMS will offer a number of document capture solutions (depending on volume) and multiple ways of getting electronic documents into the repository. Most are based on standard Windows techniques such as drag-and-drop, printing and so on. These methods can be used by any leading application and are very easy to learn and use.

Other tools that can be applied when putting documents into the repository including optical character recognition, barcode reading, and full-text indexing. These tools make automatic filing and the retrieval of documents much easier.

Using CNG as an example on the retrieval side, an application called Retriever can be attached to virtually any Windows-based application. Using Retriever, users can call up documents created by any of the other applications used by the firm. Whatever method of retrieval is being used, it must also enforce all of the security parameters set for that user. This ensures that sensitive information cannot be viewed without authorization and controls access.

In conclusion, make sure that the EDMS selected meets the needs of the firm. It must provide a great return on investment. Most of our clients enjoy an ROI of less than 12 months (sometimes as short as three-to-six months). It should provide a robust set of features that allow the firm to set up the system to meet their needs, not force the firm to change the way they do business. It must integrate with other line-of-business applications so that it will be successfully adopted throughout the firm. Finally, make sure it's a system designed and built from the ground up as an EDMS.

Don't accept multiple silos of information in the firm as a necessary evil. Find a good comprehensive solution.

Andrew Bailey is president of Cabinet NG (www.cabinetng.com), in Madison, Ala. Check out his blog at http://www.cabinetng.com/blog/index.php.

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

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