While document management woes become more sophisticated as firms shift toward that Holy Grail of a paperless—or at least paper-reduced—environment, firms are finding that long before switching to new systems, it's firm-wide attitudes and habits that need upgrading.

"There is more strategy to staying paperless than going paperless," explained Jason Blumer, managing shareholder of paperless and cloud-based CPA firm Blumer & Associates in Greenville, S.C., which uses SmartVault solutions. "That's the trick, and it's a harder task. It takes the staff time and training to teach new technology tools and it takes time to get everyone ramped up and comfortable. It's hard to break old habits."

Before approaching the ramp, however, firms must discover if these are habits management even wants broken.

"You want to start at the top, and if three of the partners want to go paperless and three do not, it's probably not going to work very well," Blumer advised. "If there's a restriction on staff to deal with paper in a digital way, but one partner wants to print out, it's defeating the purpose."

Once the whole firm is on board, a game plan is essential, and Gigi Boudreaux, tax manager at New York CPA and consulting firm Raich Ende Malter & Co., recommends taking advantage of software consultants.

"Plan, plan, plan," she emphasized. "The transition is hard ... whoever the software provider is, they have consultants that know what the end product looks like. It's hard to know exactly how to search for things in a paperless environment until you do it. You should have a consultant to say, 'This is what it's going to be like when you do this.' If you don't pay attention to that, you're going to be unhappy with the results after you make the transition."

But as firms get caught up on the technology that enables a fully digital workplace and the technology itself evolves to work out the inherent kinks of this massive transition, many cannot adopt an all-or-nothing approach.

"We are not completely paperless," said Boudreaux, whose firm uses CCH Document, ProSystem fx and XCM Solutions for workflow. "Some of the issues we still have with paperless, we have in this office with about 10 clients related to one family who are very large returners. With files that big, we can't open and close the PDF file like that; it's cumbersome and has to be broken up. We haven't completely figured out a way to do that yet."

The technology is still being adjusted to simplify these processes, said Norman LeBlanc, principal and director of state and local tax services at Rhode Island-based CPA and business consulting firm Kahn, Litwin, Renza & Co., which went paperless in 2003. The firm uses CCH ProSystem fx Engagement.

"Another element that helps is that as the technology advances, software and PDF tools get a little better," said LeBlanc, who explained that the firm is also not completely paperless. "The notations and marks you can put on documents become easier and easier to do."

Staff training should stay in step with these improvements, with more attention paid to older employees.

When Raich Ende Malter & Co. merged with a firm that had partners over the age of 60, Boudreaux said she heard a lot of grumbling about going paperless.

"They said, 'Oh no, I don't want to do that,'" she recalled. "They were waiting it out until they actually retired, doing it their way."

The firm found it helpful to initiate a mentorship program, in which a junior employee would assist those at higher levels with digital tasks.

"If a senior person didn't know how to do something, they would call that person and they would run into their office to show them how to do that," she explained. "It worked for a handful of people; they liked that they had someone to beckon."

Employees at every level should maintain the same level of digital organization that they would with paper files, she continued: "You want nice, neat work papers, tabs, and cross-references with pencil colors, and you want the same thing when looking on the screen. If it's a piece of junk in appearance or a piece of junk in document, I complain."

 

BREAKING BAD HABITS

LeBlanc found announcing the total number of pages printed by the firm over a period of time, like busy season, to be helpful in increasing awareness and encouraging older employees to control their "print page" trigger fingers.

"We make people aware of how much they're printing," he elaborated. "Saying, 'This busy season, we printed x number of pages' - a big number jumps out at people. The over-40 crowd is not able to let go of printing. The under-30 crowd rarely prints."

Blumer recommended that people with dual monitors have a third one, to read off of as a sort of surrogate printer. "We taught the staff that when they need to print paper, they 'print' to the third screen, which is the length of an 8.5-by-11-inch page."

Digitally managing documents is more complicated when staff works remotely, however. "It drives me crazy to print out a return, spend 10 minutes in a meeting, then throw it away," Boudreaux said.

Until computer tablets become more common, many CPAs share her sentiment.

"We are in that transition, like when Henry Ford made the Model T," explained LeBlanc. "There are no roads yet, so it's bumpy, a transition between a dirt road and Route 95."

There are already a few tools to help fast-track the conversion, according to Blumer. He cites EchoSign and RightSignature, which allow people to securely and digitally sign documents.

 

PROBLEMS 2.0

Once progressive firms have curbed their print count by embracing fresh tools and systems, new problems inevitably emerge.

Common among firms using cloud-based document management systems is Internet speed. Blumer & Associates, for example, had to quadruple its bandwidth to keep things running smoothly.

Firms using local servers, on the other hand, risk reaching storage capacity.

"The biggest thing firms can fall into is running out of space on file servers," said LeBlanc, whose firm employs 165 people in three offices. "It's very easy for this to creep up on you. We have a fairly large staff and when you start adding large files by the dozens each and every day, and if you do the math, it's eating up a lot of drive space in a short amount of time."

He advised firms to chart out their amount of data storage during peak time periods.

"Analyze how much data is going on the drive and project what your needs are going to be, at least quarterly," he said. "We are doing that now, and right after busy season, we look at it again because we know we have had a heavy usage period."

Security is also a factor.

Boudreaux cited the problem of banks accessing client information without compromising the security of personal portals, and said the firm is working on a solution with CCH that will likely involve anonymous links and logins with 15-minute expirations.

Generally, though, security issues should be managed with a written plan.

"Here's the tricky part, because enforcing it is another matter," LeBlanc explained. "You should be getting reports from the file service of who's accessing which files and an outside security policy can hone in on problem areas. There's a balance between being practical and being careless - if you lock everybody out, nobody can do any work."

Once secure, good document management systems and policies can change the very way that work is done.

"We can serve anybody, anywhere at any time; that is our main goal," said Blumer. "There are no boundary restrictions to our firm, no restrictions to employees we hire, or the clients we bring on."

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