Trial balance and engagement workpaper software solutions are two completely different kinds of applications that must be treated differently. Yet they are increasingly brought together, either as a matched pair of critical applications or within the same software suite, so it only makes sense to consider them together.
The trial balance is at the core of double-entry bookkeeping, providing an assessment of whether the general ledger is in balance by making a tally of the debits and credits. This will then allow the accountant to proceed with such functions as preparation of tax returns, audits of accounts and year-end closure of the ledger. Software to assist with this appeared more than 20 years ago, shortly after the automation of the general ledger.
Engagement workpaper and process software has come more recently, roughly 10 years ago. Its purpose is to combine workflow processing, document management, reporting, collaboration and other underpinnings of the engagement process into a more streamlined package. The two are often used in tandem, and are sometimes even provided in the same software.
Though there are some lesser-known entries in this market - two of which are included in this review - the market is dominated by three companies. These are CaseWare International, CCH and Thomson Reuters.
Regardless of which package is chosen, there are three essential qualities to consider in selecting the software:
1. Financial statement preparation. In both engagement process and TB applications, the ability to easily create, review and publish concise financial statements is critical to the client engagement. This is the reason that the report generation, standardized reporting and customization features of the reports are among the first traits to look for.
2.Workflow management. The ability to assign, manage and review each task in an engagement brings greater efficiency, lower costs and a better final product to the client. This includes the technologies of collaboration, document management and customer relationship management.
3. Integration with other accounting tools. It is no accident that both trial balance and engagement management applications are generally part of a larger suite of accounting tools, even if they are offered as stand-alone products as well. It's essential to use data from the CRM, general ledger, tax and other programs to improve efficiency and reduce errors in the process.
This review considers three engagement management products, three trial balance software products, and one new product worth watching. All but the last are established, mature market leaders, and should be on the short lists of firms looking to evaluate and adopt new software solutions.
CaseWare Working Papers/Open Engagement 2009
CaseWare International Inc.
Pricing: Working Papers - starts at $499; five-user license - $1,399; additional users - $260 per. Annual renewal at 50 percent of license value. Open Engagement - free.
CaseWare Working Papers is highly flexible engagement software that combines powerful document management, real-time collaboration, next-generation reporting, drag-and-drop mapping, and easy integration. The 2009 version features a new user list, dual monitor support in CaseView, and an enhanced data store that supports SQL.
Working Papers organizes all of the documents related to an engagement in one controlled area, regardless of whether they are Working Papers, Word, Excel, PDF or scanned documents, using Working Papers' built-in Document Manager. A sophisticated report writer uses "smart technology" to automate formatting, rounding, diagnostics, account amounts, text, account balances and even financial notes based on pre-set preferences.
Working papers provides automated annotations, and strong document storage and management features, and includes built-in support for trial balance, including the ability to input from the general ledger for detailed analysis. Additionally, trial balance data can be imported from most engagement and trial balance products, including ProSystem fx Engagement and Engagement CS. Firms can import trial balance and detailed general ledger transactions from most of the major accounting packages, including QuickBooks and Sage. Trial balance data can also be imported from and exported to most major tax solutions.
Add-ons for Working Papers include the CaseWare Connector, which provides a quick and easy way to link Working Papers information in documents generated by Word or Excel. Client-prepared documents are linked directly into Working Papers, with all the benefits of real-time updates, annotation, tickmarks, etc. Caseware Scenarios is an interactive analysis tool that lets you easily explore "what-if" and "goal-seeking" scenarios, providing your clients with new perspectives on their business.
A new initiative just released by CaseWare is the Open Engagement DMS system, which is tightly integrated with Working Papers and uses a Web interface to offer access across the Internet, plus strong features for storage, retrieval, security and archiving.
A client-server application, CaseWare Working Papers offers a robust, tightly integrated package of applications for engagement management built around sophisticated reports and enhanced features that include trial balance.
The Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters
Pricing: Client-server version, four users - starts at $1,200.
Engagement CS is a powerful, paperless engagement system that provides trial balance, seamless integration with leading applications, reporting tools, and workflow management to increase efficiency and productivity. A part of the CS Professional Suite, it also works well as a stand-alone application.
Engagement CS gives multiple users simultaneous access to documents and the trial balance, with a MultiStaff feature that lets the accounting team share workpapers and the trial balance concurrently. The trial balance system includes tools for tax reconciliation, cash flow reporting, accounting reports, leadsheets, schedules, tax exports and more. Engagement CS provides multi-user capabilities to allow the team to make adjustments to the same trial balance simultaneously. Also of note is the customizable financial statement formatter, with built-in templates to save time when preparing client reports.
The streamlined workflow and document management features provide for staff collaboration, project management and tracking, flexible financial reporting, tax integration features, and engagement storage and archiving via PDF files. A useful tool for workflow management is the integrated "dashboard," which allows accountants to see the status of each engagement, the tasks that need to be done, tasks that have been reviewed, the status of the review notes that have been left by the reviewer, and any tasks that have not been assigned.
Engagement CS offers seamless integration with PPC's Smart Practice Aids and Checkpoint Tools (including practice aids and workpapers). PPC's Checkpoint Tools Suite includes Practice Aids and Workpapers, the Interactive Disclosure Library, and the Engagement Letter Generator in Word and Excel format. Engagement CS and Checkpoint Tools offer strong diagnostic capabilities, including an Unsigned Program Step Report for timely notifications. PPC's Smart Practice Aids offer a top-down, risk-based audit approach and dynamically generate custom audit programs based upon assessment of risk and internal controls.
Engagement CS earns high marks for its full feature set, strong reporting capabilities, the ability to import and export from other accounting systems, and superlative workflow abilities. It also offers a Software-as-a-Service version that sets it apart from competitors by allowing firms to evaluate the system easily and inexpensively.
ProSystem fx Engagement
CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business
Pricing: Varies depending on modules selected, number of users and available discounts; starts at roughly $1,400.
ProSystem fx standardizes a firm's tax and audit processes through the use of electronic binders for document management and integrated workflow features for project tracking, reporting, review and sign-off, and archiving.
The engagement binders feature a Windows-style file structure, and allow for documents to be scanned directly into the appropriate client binder. One-time staff set-up is simple, reducing the need for redundant data entry. An administration module allows staff members to be assigned to binders as teams, eliminating the need to add individual staff members to each engagement. Security levels can be individualized for each staff member and set up at one time, making it easy to maintain data integrity throughout the process.
Engagement's trial balance system and other workpapers are built on Word and Excel, enabling them to be stored in PDF format directly to the client binders. This also means that data from other accounting programs can be exported to Excel or as a CSV file, then easily imported into the system. ProSystem fx Engagement allows project managers to sign off electronically, monitor the ï¬
The roll-forward capabilities of ProSystem fx Engagement are superior - data can be rolled forward from year to year, automatically populating financial statements and workpapers with current dates, account balances and variances. Previously assigned staff will continue to be tracked in the new year, and pertinent financial statement data will also roll forward.
Part of the ProSystem fx suite of products, this client-server application is superior in almost every way - a robust, scalable application that easily meets the needs of accounting firms ranging from the sole practitioner to global enterprises.
ProSystem fx Trial Balance
CCH, a Wolters Kluwer business
Pricing: Starts at $1,400.
ProSystem fx Trial Balance is designed to create accurate financial statements and a solid set of workpapers in a format that can easily link to ProSystem fx Tax and Engagement.
Integration with tax and accounting systems is critical to the effectiveness of a trial balance system, which has a more narrow focus and functionality than the more robust engagement and workflow systems. Here, ProSystem fx delivers strong capabilities - data can be imported directly from QuickBooks using an import utility, or from any accounting package that can export data to a spreadsheet. Data from ACE, ATB, Fast!, Fast Advantage and GoSystem Audit can also be imported to ProSystem fx Trial Balance.
It also integrates with ProSystem fx Tax, allowing data flow back into the tax app. Two special apps - Dynalink to integrate with Pro-System fx Tax corporation, S corp, partnership, and exempt-organization returns, and Quicklink to enable the tax return data in ProSystem fx Tax to mirror any changes made in ProSystem fx Trial Balance - provide exceptional ease of use and efficiency.
Designed for multi-user access, ProSystem fx Trial Balance enables the creation of adjusting, passed adjusting, reclassification, tax, eliminating journal, recurring and intentionally unbalanced entries. Transaction data can be entered into the source journals for cash receipts, disbursements and general journals. It provides support for nonprofit, government and consolidated corporation engagements, as well as for predefined classifications, lead schedules and sub-lead schedules for specific industries.
The reporting capabilities are also very strong, with multiple period types for interim process, interim period calculations, analytical review workpapers to assess current and prior-year comparisons, and flexibility in working with prior periods. Customized financial statements can be created using the Trial Balance Wizard, and include more than 70 standard reports and workpapers, such as lead schedules, trial balance, material variance and more. Trial Balance documents can also be converted to PDF and merged into a single PDF file with the Append feature.
ProSystem fx Trial Balance is a sophisticated and flexible program that has seen substantial enhancements since its introduction in 1996. Its accuracy and time-saving features make it a strong choice among accountants both as part of the ProSystem fx Suite and as a stand-alone application.
Trial Balance CS
The Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters
Pricing: Non-networked - starts at $600.
Integration counts in TB software, and this is an area in which Trial Balance CS does a very credible job, both as a module within Engagement CS and as a stand-alone product.
Trial Balance CS allows users to import TB information from virtually any accounting system, formatted as a spreadsheet. In addition, there is a QuickBooks import utility that allows for preferences in the data transfer and for security of data. Trial Balance CS also integrates with tax preparation products, including Ultra Tax CS, GoSystem Tax, ProSystem fx Tax, ProSeries Tax and Lacerte, in addition to Write-Up CS and FileCabinet CS.
Its workflow features are also very strong, including the ability to custom-design columns in the Trial Balance grid; the ability to add customer workpaper references and tickmarks to indicate the review status of accounts; customizable basis definitions with multiple bases for cash, accrual, tax, book and budget; and the ability to group accounts by codes and sub-codes for faster analysis and reporting. Of particular note for workflow is the ability to split the screen to view both journals and trial balance, a feature that works well and is highly efficient.
The flexible Financial Statement Editor sports a spreadsheet-style interface, and provides statements that are highly customizable and flexible. More than 40 built-in templates are provided, and statement designs can be copied from client to client to provide faster workflow and a consistent look to the firm's output. The financial reports can also contain conditional statements, drill-down to the detail of line items, and an array of 39 system-provided analytical ratios, in addition to custom-created ratios.
The standard reports provided with Trial Balance CS include an account changes report; a tax reconciliation report; a chart of accounts; a trial balance report; a trial balance variance report, a grouping schedule report; a trial balance grid report; adjusting journal entries; a financial statement worksheet; a trial balance worksheet; a financial statement set-up listing; a tax code report; and a client information report.
Fast, flexible and efficient, Trial Balance CS is an example of excellent performance in a system that can be used either as an integrated part of the CS suite or as a stand-alone application. Its economical pricing and strong feature set make it one of the most popular trial balance systems in the marketplace.
Pricing: Accounting Relief - $395 per year; $40 per month. Accountant's Relief - $999.
Accounting Relief is a Web-based application that is part of the SaaS suite from AccountantsWorld. It is designed to provide trial balance, write-up and reporting in a format that is fast, easy to use and economical.
The application is designed to be used in collaboration with the client. Accountant and client share data and data entry through a client portal service at an additional cost, though the accountant maintains control over the data and the security of the financial reporting system. In this way, the client performs bookkeeping and data entry chores online, and the accountant uses the same database for trial balance activities.
Accounting Relief supports multiple views (adjusted, unadjusted, federal, etc.) as well as a dashboard-style graphic representation of account details. Drill-down and tickmark features are supported, and adjustments may be made to the general journal with reversing and recurring entries, and reclassifications. The system supports an unlimited number of custom journals.
The reporting system includes limited engagement support (with more functionality provided in the Practice Relief service from AccountantsWorld). These include templates for more than 70 engagement letters, complete financial statements, comparative financials, and the ability to view associated tax and other data.
A separate product with a confusingly similar name is Accountant's Relief. Also from Accountants World, Accountant's Relief is a simple program for trial balance, write-up and financial reporting that resides on the desktop, rather than on the AccountantsWorld SaaS site. It is fully integrated with the online Accounting Relief, and supports departmental accounting, consolidation, workpapers, leadsheets, financials, multiple journals and more.
AccountantsWorld and its suite of services, including Accounting Relief, have made remarkable progress since their introduction of the first truly full-featured SaaS service. Whatever it may lack in bells in whistles is more than balanced by its economical price, core features, client focus and ease of use.
Pricing: Single user - $598.
TBFSwriter is a relative newcomer to the accounting space for trial balance software, released in August of this year and based on the firm's government-focused product, Govwriter. A nonprofit version and an engagement product called Engagewriter are due out later this year.
What is interesting about this product is that it has emerged recently to challenge the large, well-established products in a market that has tightly consolidated. It offers export from Excel from most general ledger programs, allows flexibility in column set-up and adjusting entries, and includes a mini-write-up feature and a roll-forward feature for subsequent periods.
Financial statements can be set up on the fly, offering diagnostics and spell-check, as well as a full complement of standard reports that include balance sheet, budget comparisons, year-to-date changes in equity, a YTD operating statement, a YTD schedule of SG&A, and related financial supports.
TBFSwriter is not as robust as its competitors, but neither does it carry their price tag. It appears designed for the smaller CPA firm, where its economy of scale and straightforward focus may be of value. It clearly does not run with the big dogs, but is a product to watch as it evolves in coming years.
Dave McClure is the president of Kent Associates, in Alexandrian, Va., an independent testing laboratory and evaluation service.
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