Technology has clearly permeated the accounting firm (and the rest of the world, for that matter), with tools ranging from the basic to the arcane.

 

However, when it comes to "must-have" technology items, those tools that aid with security, productivity and connectivity - both within the firm and with clients - are at the top of most accountants' lists.

With all the services that accountants perform for clients, and in their practice, knowing what matters most when it comes to choosing a technology solution is far more important than what any one particular piece of software, hardware, or service can provide.

"What's most important is anything that allows you to be fully portable and functional; tools that let you work and allow you to work how you need to," said Dan Szidon, partner-in-charge of audit and accounting at Milwaukee-based Wifpli. "I have 300 auditors out there, and I'm going to have them use something I know lets them work from wherever they are. This is real-time, everyone working together. That's where things are headed."

Szidon also maintained that given the increasingly mobile and paperless workforce, it's important to have a solution that can handle full encryption of client files, as well as the hardware they work on. This is just one of three primary toolsets that firms are realizing they can't, or won't, be able to do without. Workflow management and scanning and document management also top the list.

 

FILE ENCRYPTION

The consensus among accountants and industry analysts is that file encryption services or tools should be at or near the top of any list of must-have technologies.

Granted, there are firms that continue to e-mail requested client documents without any form of encryption. But now that 45 of the 50 U.S. states have enacted some form of data security laws, CPAs are paying more attention to encryption, especially with the high costs of a security breach. Penalties for violating data security rules can reach as high as $500,000, although according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit group that assists ID theft victims, the average cost per record breached is about $202.

Boston-based Caturano & Co. vice president William Kracunas is all too familiar with stringent data security laws, as his state is one of strictest in the country. "Massachusetts has very high privacy laws, so having some kind of encryption or secure file-sharing service has been a no-brainer for us," he said. "All of our laptops are encrypted and we use portals for file transfer. That's the way to go."

Well-known tech consultant and analyst Randy Johnston also agreed that, for CPAs, technology for the encrypted handling of files is among the most important tools they can have. "CPAs have a professional responsibility to handle client files confidentially. Without a portal, encrypted e-mail, or at least encryption on thumb drives or hard drives, it is impossible to protect client files," he said.

 

WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT

For everything a firm does, from dealing with tax forms to audits and engagements, there are processes and numerous electronic documents that go along with those processes. Having the tools to manage and track them has become more essential.

Workflow management software is somewhat new to the CPA world, but is growing in use as firms wean themselves off paper. At firms such as Red Bank, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown, they could not see functioning efficiently without a workflow management tool. "Two years ago, if you asked anyone on our staff about workflow management software, they'd say, 'Why do we need this?' Now, every single work product that goes through the firm is digital and it needs to be tracked," said WS+B partner Jim Bourke. "CPA firms should not just automate tax, they need to automate the firm. Work is work, whether it's a financial statement, agreed procedure report, payroll report - no matter what. Use a solution that is for the entire firm, not just one thing like a tax return."

Bourke mentioned that while some CPAs still do manual or Excel-based workflow management, companies such as XCM Solutions and Thompson Reuters have "very good" workflow management solutions.

Oak Brook Terrace, Ill.-based Crowe Horwath has a large auditing business, and having the right workflow management tool is at the core of its practice. But rather than going out into the market and finding the best vendor for the job, it developed its own tools.

"We have something called Automated Work Papers, which allows for significant efficiencies during reviews. I don't need to be at a client location and each client has a database set up. Everything is in real time, too," explained Ralph Pucek, a senior manager at Crowe Horwath. "Then we have Client Information Request Tracker; it's a Web-based program where we put out all of the requests that we have while at the client's site. Individual access is assigned and you can pull up the information you need anytime. We can monitor information they are uploading, and it gives us the level of readiness of our client so we can perform our service to them."

SCANNERS AND DM

Most firms these days are going or are already paperless, and having some kind of scanning or document management tool has become a key component in that transition process.

In fact, Johnston said, "If your firm doesn't have some kind of scanning capability or software to handle paperless documents, your inefficiency is costing you time and money."

Caturano's Kracunas also noted that any paperless office should have a good portable scanner with multiple capabilities. His firm uses Fujitsu's Scansnap Field Scanner, citing its portability and ability to scan double-sided. "Receipts, bank statements, whatever we need. We went through a lot of scanners over the years, but they love this," he said. "Scans go right to PDF; it does it all automatically."

Other toolsets are becoming vital in the life of a CPA, experts say. Backup services, particularly online or cloud-based ones, are playing a more important role, as are business intelligence or data-mining tools.

 

For a list of specific product recommendations from tech expert David Cieslak, see the expanded version of this story at AccountingToday.com.

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