Software survey: Workflow in 2019

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When talking about workflow, many accounting firms automatically think of practice management. That’s not surprising, since practice management is one of the more important applications in many firms, and the workflow through this application is critical in maintaining a smooth-running firm.

But looking at workflow in a single application is a granular examination. Equally important are the workflows in every application in your practice, such as write-up, tax prep, and even research, and how they flow between the individual applications. You need to examine both the micro and macro views of how data, paper and people work and move through your practice.

To get at some of the important considerations surrounding workflow, and how vendors are tackling them, Accounting Today recently convened a panel of workflow software developers for a deep dive into the subject.

Reasonable goals and expectations

An important question we asked our virtual vendor panel was what they saw firms specifically trying to accomplish with workflow software. While the vendors often used different language, efficiency was at the core of their answers.

Jetpack Workflow CEO David Cristello told us, “Accounting firms, whether big or small, are all typically looking for a practice management solution that helps them run a more efficient practice. This can come in the form of successful client onboarding or accurate monitoring of jobs at intake through to completion, or a quick view on what employee capacity they have at any given time.”

Mike Sabbatis, CEO of XCM Solutions, added, “At the core of every workflow solution, firms are looking for better visibility and control over their entire workload and resource allocation that helps drive productivity and increases the capacity to do more with their resources. Equally important to firms is having measurable results to ensure efficient business processes are delivering an enhanced client experience.”

Wolters Kluwer product line manager Damon Russel offered a different description: “Firms want to automate tasks that don’t add value to the client/firm relationship. For tasks that can’t be automated, firms prefer technology to blend into the background, so they can focus on the work itself instead of getting distracted by technology hassles.”

A graphic is worth a thousand words

In analyzing and tuning workflows, it helps to have the ability to visualize the existing flows throughout the application under review, as well as the practice as a whole. These don’t necessarily have to be fancy. Sometimes even a simple flowchart of processes will be helpful. The vendors we surveyed take different approaches in providing these visualization aids.

Some vendors, such as XCM, link to applications that provide additional insight to workflows. “We provide workflow process mapping tools and enable benchmarking via analytics tools like Power BI and Tableau for analyzing and improving business workflows and processes within firms. XCManalytics as a Service (AaaS) provides summary-level status reporting with interactive search, drill-down capabilities, and benchmarking,” said XCM Solutions president Glen Kennan. “Since all the data in XCM is based upon a firm’s actual production and operations, the firm has the ability to look at real-time KPIs through our reporting capabilities or interactive dashboards offered in XCManalytics as a Service to measure real-time productivity and focus on continuous improvement.”

Sometimes, the vendor has included tools to fine-tune or even build the workflows, as with Microsoft’s business process flows. “Our customers use business process flows to define a set of steps for people to follow to take them to a desired outcome,” Charles Lamanna, general manager of the Microsoft Application Platform, explained. “These steps provide a visual indicator that tells people where they are in the business process. Business process flows reduce the need for training because new users don’t have to focus on which entity they should be using. They can let the process guide them. Business process flows provide a guide for people to get work done. They provide a streamlined user experience that leads people through the processes their organization has defined for interactions that need to be advanced to a conclusion of some kind.”

Other vendors use dashboards or key performance indicators. “Jetpack Workflow has several features that help provide insights into their firm’s status at any time,” Cristello said. “Our software’s main dashboard allows you to see what work is ahead for next week, what is due today or this week, and what may be already overdue. Users can filter by job or by staff member. You’re also able to see at a glance what stage jobs are in using customizable labels.”

Dashboards are a common visual aid for a number of vendors. “The CCH Axcess platform includes workflow dashboards and reporting to help firms analyze and improve their processes,” said Russel. “In addition, firms can use the CCH Axcess Data Axcess APIs and Data Axcess Utility to analyze workflow information in third-party business intelligence solutions. And the CCH Axcess Data Insights tool includes six off-the-shelf Microsoft Power BI dashboards, including a Project dashboard that shows firms data visualizations of KPIs like budget vs. actual, project hours, and project status.”

Thomson Reuters also takes the dashboard approach. According to proposition strategy lead Louie Calvin, “Thomson Reuters supports the use of charts and graphs on reports and dashboards, so firms can visualize data relevant to the workflow, including budget-to-actual comparisons, and their variances, so firm leadership can quickly determine where to focus improvement efforts and maximize profitability. These easy-to-access and always-current dashboards and reports provide the insight necessary to make critical business decisions throughout any tax and accounting firm.”

AbacusNext’s OfficeTools is yet another application that uses dashboards. “The OfficeTools Staff Activity list is an on-screen dashboard of items representing all the work assigned to your team members. With automated population, it will show upcoming work, current status and overdue items. With date, type, priority and staff filters, it is the core tool for managing workload, deadlines, and client expectations,” said product manager Nicole Fluty.

But Karbon takes a slightly different approach, according to co-founder and vice president of education and partnerships Ian Vacin: “Karbon provides visualization of work through Kanban card/board views, time-based views of tasks through the to-do views, plus reports across the work and performance of the practice. Data can also be exported out and mapped easily in mapping software like Microsoft Visio or LucidCharts.”

Firms don’t live by workflow alone

An important aspect of implementing efficient and effective workflows is making sure that they interface and integrate with as many of the applications implemented in your practice as possible. The vendors we surveyed offer different levels of integration with their own as well as other vendors’ applications.

For example, XCM Solutions integrates with a number of its own applications as well as applications from CCH, Microsoft, and other vendors. According to Sabbatis, “Our workflow software has a direct integration with XCMscheduler, XCMcalendar, and XCManalytics as a Service. In addition, the application has a robust set of 35-plus APIs that enable advanced pull and push data connections that offer customizable integrations, and currently directly connects to a growing list including: CCH ProSystem fx Practice Management, ProSystem fx Document and Axcess Practice Management, as well as Sharepoint, eFileCabinent Windows, and Explorer.”

Wolters Kluwer is another vendor that plays well with others. “The CCH Axcess platform includes integrated tax compliance, document management, time & billing, and financial prep modules in addition to the workflow and client collaboration components,” said Russel. “It also integrates with the CCH ProSystem fx Suite, including CCH ProSystem fx Engagement. It has off-the-shelf integration with accounting solutions like QuickBooks and Xero, e-payment solutions including CPA Charge and BrainTree, as well as Microsoft Power BI for business intelligence. Firms can also leverage the CCH Axcess platform’s open integration APIs to integrate other third-party or home-grown solutions.”

OfficeTools and Karbon are two other vendors that offer significant integrations. According to AbacusNext’s Fluty, “Integrations have always been important when it comes to full firm management; in fact, many applications rely on integration to bolster limitations within their own feature set. OfficeTools provides a complete system including workflow, scheduling, billing, CRM, DMS, etc., reducing the need to integrate with as many third-party solutions. However, to ensure OfficeTools users have the flexibility they require, we do provide integration with Lacerte, QuickBooks, Outlook, Abacus Payment Exchange, Canon, Crexendo, File Center, Dymo label printers, [e-signature tools], Adobe and Microsoft Office.”

And Karbon’s Vacin listed the applications their software integrates with, including Google Gmail, Microsoft Office 365, Microsoft Exchange, GoProposal, Practice Ignition, Sage HandiSoft, QuickBooks Online, Hubspot, TSheets and Zapier.

Finally, Thomson Reuters also provides a host of integrations both with its own applications and with those of other vendors. “Thomson Reuters platforms are designed to avoid duplication of data entry by data sharing and integrating information across the entire suite. Our solutions share client demographic data — names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and other contact information — with the compliance solutions within our products, including UltraTax CS, Accounting CS, Onvio, GoFileRoom and several others. Furthermore, Thomson Reuters products integrate with the UltraTax CS Status System for project tracking purposes, and receive tax preparation fee balances for invoicing clients, and other integration points across the CS Professional Suite,” Calvin said. He also listed other applications, including sharing files with common cloud solutions such as Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box.

Tell me what you want

Another area we were interested in examining was what vendors said they and their customers are looking for in future software releases.

XCM Solutions’ Sabbatis said, “As we talk to customers, we continue to see a great need in analytics, especially as it relates to workforce capacity, utilization and forecasting. Additionally, as practices expand their service offerings, we see the need for flexibility in our application to deliver on practice areas such as tax, audit, client accounting, operations and other key business processes. We’ve addressed much of this through our flexible configuration and rapid deployment technologies, and we continue to enhance areas in our control sheet through customized views, enhanced search capabilities, and custom views that enable each user to see what’s most important to them. We will be adding more categories that will expand the usability beyond the 125 use cases in production today.”

And while Jetpack doesn’t publish its roadmap, “There are a few areas that we are interested in exploring in the near future,” Cristello said. “We think there’s a lot of innovation that can happen in reporting and surfacing insights to our customers, allowing our customers to collaborate with their clients in a better way, and creating advanced workflow features that will enable our customers to get more work done on time in less time.”

Microsoft is also looking to the future, according to Lamanna. “One of the primary focus areas for Microsoft Flow is to make the workflows and automations more intelligent. With the introduction of AI Builder in June 2019, we took the first step for Microsoft Flow,” he said. “It is now possible to automatically parse PDFs or forms, make predictions based on historical data, detect objects in images, and categorize text. All of these capabilities can be included in workflows today and require no code or data science background — any business user or accountant can leverage them.”

Wolters Kluwer’s Russel added, “Firms are looking for a way to provide a modern client experience. One of the recurring pain points that we hear about is the hassle of collecting information from clients. Many firms have already started to streamline this process with digital organizers, scanning and OCR, collecting data electronically and flowing data into tax returns. We offer several tools to help firms do this, but we’ve now started to re-examine these workflows, especially from the client perspective.”

“Rather than requiring staff to update on the progress of a tax return, we are exploring technologies to advance a tax project to the next task when certain criteria are met, or facilitate multiple audit tasks simultaneously when audit teams work in parallel,” Thomson Reuters’ Calvin said. “Ultimately, Thomson Reuters aims to eliminate the need for staff to update the work status altogether and focus on providing actionable reporting to management and clients.”

Not insignificant

It’s easy to dismiss a formal examination of the workflows in your practice. Many of these have evolved over time to address specific problems. But just because they aren’t obviously dysfunctional doesn’t mean that your practice is operating at its true potential. Take a close look at the workflows you have in place, and if necessary, implement software to improve and streamline them.

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