Remember the old days? Forms shipped off to service bureaus? Is it possible that manual data entry will seem as quaint within a few years?

Manual data entry, of course, won’t completely go away. But the volume of work that must be done that way, in particular in the preparation of tax returns, will diminish substantially and it’s not going to take very long.

The combination of a shortage of CPAs and professional employees and the gains that can be made by reclaiming the time spent punching numbers into tax preparation software will drive this change because the results of automation will be so obvious to firms, whose business depends on the billable hour.

The hints have been there for some time. Intuit, with its consumer TurboTax software, started piloting a program a few years ago in which W-2 information could be automatically pulled from a variety of Web sites. The most-talked about product right now is 1040 Scan from SurePrep, whose original business plan centered on getting firms to send their returns overseas for processing. With that method not taking off, SurePrep turned to workflow products, and then added 1040 Scan to the product mix. The SurePrep product can scan and recognize forms, organize them and get the data into the right places on the 1040 return. Rest assured that SurePrep is merely first to market. Reports are that all major players have similar products ready to roll out in the next few months.

Thomson Tax and Accounting (the part formerly known as Creative Solutions) came out last fall with technology that lets data from barcoded W-2s and 1099s be put into the tax forms. In November, Intuit moved in the same direction with Source Doc Auto-Entry, which lets accountants scan and import client data from common tax documents and import it directly into both the Lacerte and ProSeries packages.

Change is in the wind and it’s blowing like a hurricane. Unfortunately, it’s likely to hit in a way that, instead of giving any firm an advantage, makes automated data-entry something simply required to play the game.

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