Workflow is a term that gets bandied around a lot. But exactly what it is depends on who is doing the talking. Some vendors still group their workflow capabilities in the practice management application, while others look at workflow as just an extension of due-date monitoring.

To give you a better idea of how vendors describe workflow, and what advantages workflow software brings to the table, we talked to six vendors.


WHAT IS WORKFLOW?

Generally speaking, workflow is a set of discrete tasks performed serially or in parallel to accomplish a specific process. An individual workflow is often a discrete process, such as tax prep or write-up, each of which have their own specific sets of tasks and data/document flow. In most practices, there is also an intertwining of workflows, where one workflow intersects, or feeds into, another.

For example, take tax prep. Tracking all of the paths and operations involved in producing a return and invoice, and making certain all of these tasks are performed on time by concrete due dates, is where workflow software comes in.

Queried on specific features that they felt should be contained in a workflow solution, many of the answers we received from vendors were in agreement. Jetpack Workflow CEO David Cristello just gave us a list:

  • Recurring and one-off job management;
  • Team collaboration and assignment;
  • Client profile and field management;
  • Integrations with existing software;
  • Client collaboration and assignment; and,
  • Metric report and capacity views.

XCM chief operating officer Mike Sabbatis went into a bit more detail on what features he feels are crucial: “Workflow is all about connecting people through process and technology to achieve greater productivity. The features we see as critical are real-time, on-demand access to your information on any device, anywhere, anytime; 360-degree visibility for all stakeholders to all elements, details, status points, guidance, and actions around business process and resources; and the flexibility to configure and manage repeatable, ad hoc, or unique projects and processes, with multiple resources, within and across departments, without time or geographic boundaries.”
Adding to the list, Sabbatis continued with, “built-in accountability levers for individual contributors, administrators, mid-level managers and senior leadership that provide insight and foresight to empower, engage and energize the workforce. Also, controls that enable you to measure, optimize and performance-tune your business, eliminate bottlenecks, collaborate more effectively, allocate resources appropriately, and achieve milestones while improving quality and service.”


SEALING THE CRACKS

When we asked what firms are specifically looking for workflow software to accomplish, Jetpack Workflow’s Cristello’s answer was short and to the point: “Tracking one-off and recurring due dates so that client work doesn’t fall through the cracks.”

Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting product manager Samantha Deal expanded on this: “Give me the confidence that I’m safe and following the rules, and meeting deadlines. Nothing falls through the cracks. I do all the right steps so my client’s project is done properly and by the right due date.”

Looking for bottlenecks and other problems was another area of concern, she added: “Firms also are looking for new metrics to track and those metrics will be based in workflow data around planned start and finish dates compared to actuals and billings to pinpoint if specific staff or clients stall out, and how to remove bottlenecks and roadblocks through better training, assigning of staff to projects.”

“First and foremost, workflow software should ensure deadlines are being met. If your workflow system isn’t pushing you to finish work on time, it isn’t doing its primary function,” said Timothy Parker, communications director at OfficeTools. “Second, it should keep in-process projects on track. Too often, poorly designed or managed workflow systems allow projects to fall into limbo.”

Parker added, “Your workflow software should never drop the ball, guaranteeing that every project you start is carried to completion. You also want your workflow system to facilitate paperless processes through your office, leveraging the efficiencies of digital workflow to help you meet your deadlines with time to spare.”

Assurance is also a key word in the lexicon of Christie Johnston, product manager for firm workflow and administration at Thomson Reuters: “The most important function of any workflow software is to provide all staff and managers with assurance — assurance that all information is updated and correct. Without this assurance, those working in accounting firms tend to revert back to personal workflow tracking — Excel spreadsheets, e-mail inboxes, etc. — and the benefits of firmwide transparency into project statuses are completely lost. Therefore, most importantly, the solution must be quick and easy to use without acting as a distraction to the actual work being done. This includes clear lists of work items for staff which they can easily configure for their use, as well as easy-to-configure and understand alerts (on-screen, e-mail, etc.) about work items which change status.”

Deadlines kept turning up in vendors’ descriptions of functionality. Wolters Kluwer’s Deal focused on accurate due dates. “I know many consider workflow and due dates to be separate, but in our market, the two can’t be decoupled,” she said. “I believe that due dates drive the workflow to a certain extent.”

“Beyond due dates, a good tool needs easy opportunities to update the project, embedded in the user’s natural daily work tasks,” she continued.


MULTIPLE APPLICATIONS

All of the vendors we surveyed mentioned that their workflow software was compatible with other applications. Some, such as Wolters Kluwer’s Deal, told us that their workflow solution was part of an overall solution suite: “CCH Axcess Workstream is part of the CCH Axcess solution, so it draws from the same common data and services as CCH Axcess Tax, Practice, Document and Portal. We also have integration points with CCH ProSystem fx Tax and CCH ProSystem fx Engagement.” However, CCH’s Axcess Workstream is not only strictly compatible with other CCH products, she noted: “Integration to products outside of Wolters Kluwer, if critical to our firms’ operations and mission, can be explored by using our Open Integration Platform.”

Thomson Reuters is another vendor that has a suite of products. “Practice CS automatically shares client demographic data — names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and other contact information — with the other products within the CS Professional Suite (which includes UltraTax CS, Accounting CS and several others),” according to Johnston. “Furthermore, Practice CS integrates with the UltraTax CS Status System for project-tracking purposes, and receives tax preparation fee balances from UltraTax CS for invoicing purposes, among other integration points across the CS Professional Suite.”

Some of the vendors’ solutions are vendor-agnostic. Jetpack Workflow integrates with QuickBooks Online for time and billing and client sync, Outlook for e-mail and calendar, Google Apps for e-mail and calendar as well, and QuickBooks Desktop IIF importer. Karbon connects to many of the same applications, such as QuickBooks Online, as well as Gmail, Office 365 and Microsoft Exchange.

XCM is also vendor-agnostic. “XCM is an open platform system that works horizontally across tax, accounting, finance, audit and operations applications,” Sabbatis told us. “Our device- and browser-agnostic cloud solutions offer real-time anywhere, anytime access to work. We have multiple points of connection into document management and storage systems, practice management, client information, tax, accounting and audit.”

I PIC = X WORDS?

Given that graphic tools like flowcharting are often used in mapping workflows and processes, we found it surprising that some vendors don’t include these kinds of graphics capabilities in their applications. That doesn’t mean that there are no graphics or tools in use.

According to Karbon CEO and co-founder Stuart McLeod, Karbon provides a Kanban board, which provides a view as to where each job stands among the larger overall picture. Accountants can organize work by client, job status, or by team member so they know who has capacity, and simply drag and drop to assign work to someone else, update its status, or change its due date.

Graphics are also a significant component of Wolters Kluwer’s workflow offerings. According to Deal, “CCH Axcess Workstream contains project status KPIs to give insight into the distribution of projects and their various states and statuses across the firm. Filtering allows you to narrow down to specific subsets of projects and statuses, with drill-down capability for performing critical actions such as launching linked tax returns or changing assignments. CCH Axcess Data Axcess APIs can be used to extract data to other tools to create additional visualizations in a format the firm prefers.”

Thomson Reuters also has some graphics capabilities. “Practice CS supports the use of charts and graphs on both reports and dashboards, so firms can visualize data relevant to workflow, including budget-to-actual comparisons (including variances) and data like average time spent on each task of a given project type, so firm leadership can quickly determine where to focus improvement efforts and maximize profitability,” said Johnston.


LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

As good as the current workflow software is, vendors still strive to improve it. For example, Karbon has a wish list it is working on that includes document management, file management, time sheets, and time billing including write-on/write-off, invoicing and general ledger integration. Some of these features are already incorporated into other vendors’ workflow systems. Other vendors, such as Jetpack Workflow, are looking at additional integrations with tax and accounting platforms, and deeper integrations with client communication and collaboration tools.

Finally, as with pretty much any software technology these days, artificial intelligence seems to play a part in future development hopes. “We are working on technologies to leverage AI, performance analytics, robotics and other trends we see in the business process and technology industries today, and while we offer some of these in our platform today, we see these areas continuing to evolve,” said XCM’s Sabbatis.

That future is echoed by Wolters Kluwer’s Deal: “With the rise of artificial intelligence and automation, workflow software will be more and more automated. Predictive scheduling and forecasting will be more and more critical. Projects will be able to move from task to task with less user intervention, and taking cues from many products. For example, when a scan is completed, project status automatically updates.”

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Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman

Ted Needleman has been covering technology for more than 30 years, writing frequently on software, hardware, and related subjects. He was previously editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology.