World War II may have ended over half a century ago, but we are still reaping the benefits of developments initiated during that conflict. While the computer may be the most obvious, the war also saw the application of mathematics to logistics, which, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, morphed into "operations research" - many of the techniques of which have become pretty commonplace to accountants these days.One outgrowth of operations research was systems analysis - looking at things as an integrated entity, not separate pieces. Workflow analysis is an application of systems analysis to examine how the applications and tasks performed in an office or practice interact with each other, as well as with the staff performing them. Workflow software applies these analyses to make sure that the right staff member gets assigned the right task, along with the appropriate documents and data files.
In many cases, workflow software is an adjunct to specific applications, such as tax prep, and often a component of document management. That's not surprising when you consider that many DM applications are really content management systems - defining "document" very broadly.
CONTENTS MAY VARY
If someone is talking about general ledger or tax prep, you can be pretty confident that you know what the application entails. That's not particularly true with workflow.
For example, FirmWorks, from Knowledge Concepts Inc. in Valdosta Ga., is considered one of the more mature workflow applications developed specifically for accountants. However, it doesn't actually route specific documents between staff members. Rather, it tracks who should get what document, where a particular document or file is at any specific point in time, and what, if any, due dates are associated with that particular document or file.
This approach works fine for Bollenback & Forret PA CPAs, a 20-person practice in Clearwater, Fla. According to Rick Stuart, the partner who handles IT chores, "We use [FirmWorks] for every job we have. Our practice includes business and individual tax returns, business valuation, estate and trust tax returns, and financial statements."
The practice currently uses Doc.It, from Doc.It Corp., for its document management needs, so Stuart is considering implementing the routing features (workflow manager) in Doc.It sometime in the future. However, weighing in his decision will be his positive experiences with FirmWorks. "They have been very supportive whenever we've had technical questions, or something is not working the way we think it should work."
Tracking, rather than direct routing, is also the direction taken by both CCH ProSystem fx Engagement and Thomson Reuters' Engagement CS. Both forego routing and concentrate on providing engagement leaders and firm managers with a big picture - which staff have what documents, and monitoring where each engagement is in the cycle. Both leave document routing to their vendors' document management applications. With ProSystem fx, this application is ProSystem fx Document. Thomson Reuters has two CS document management solutions - FileCabinet CS and GoFileRoom CS.
THIS GOES THERE
The ability to automatically route documents is an important component of workflow control in many firms. This routing is usually performed according to rules set up in the application, so when a piece of data or contact with a particular client or project is received by the firm, it is automatically sent to those staff members who need it.
The Doc.It Suite provides both document management and routing. The workflow manager handles routing, including integration with Microsoft Outlook that can route e-mails, while the work-in-progress manager lets your practice track the status and location of documents and files, as well as how much of the engagement has been completed and what still needs to be done.
CNG-Safe, from CabinetNG Inc., is another document management system that provides document routing and workflow management. CNG-Safe can route documents and files from a number of outside applications, including Microsoft Office, and you can set some elaborate rules for this routing, such as routing documents to different staff members depending on specific words or numbers appearing in the document header. For example, an e-mail containing client data might be routed to the staff member who is responsible for that client.
All of these applications are very affordable. On the high end of document management, Microsoft SharePoint Workflow Foundation and Xerox DocuShare 6 CPX are high-powered applications that have powerful routing and scheduling capabilities. Setting up the features of these two applications can be somewhat more complex and confusing than many of the other applications discussed here. But since these applications are usually installed and configured by a VAR or reseller, this may not be a problem.
GoFileRoom, from Thomson Reuters, is yet another DM system with extensive workflow capabilities. This application is available in versions suitable (and affordable) for both large and small practices. William Vaughan Co., a 60-person practice in Maumee, Ohio, is a GoFileRoom client, having started using the application in 2005. According to senior tax manager Sandra Towns, CPA, "GoFileRoom has allowed us to be a lot more efficient. We try and do all of the work in our office on a FIFO basis when we can, so [GoFileRoom] helps everybody to keep their work organized by flowing it through the different steps of the process in the most efficient manner."
XCM Solutions, in Braintree Mass., takes a somewhat different approach. XCM 6.0, its newest release, is a Web-based application specifically designed for CPA firm workflow automation. XCM is not specifically a document management system, in that it does not capture paper and electronic documents. Rather, XCM Solutions has partnered with other DM vendors, such as CCH, to provide a complete document management and workflow solution.
DiCicco, Gulman & Co. LLP, a growing firm in Woburn, Mass., with close to 100 employees, uses CCH's ProSystem fx Document and Engagement, but also uses XCM, primarily in the tax practice area.
"As we grew, we realized we needed an electronic alternative to manually moving tax returns from desk to desk," according to tax principal Laura Barooshian, CPA. "We wanted a system that could increase efficiency and productivity. XCM helps us do that by tracking the progress of each tax return and allowing us to better manage our staff's workload."
CONSIDER THE ROI
With labor costs continuing to rise, and fees often remaining more or less flat, it's obvious that staff productivity is important to practice profitability.
Workflow software is good for improving that productivity, according to William Vaughan's Towns. "This year we have expanded our use of [GoFileRoom] for financial statement and consulting engagements."
DG&C's Barooshian concurs: "I love the technology.
We have gained greater workflow efficiency because of it ... . One application allows us to meet and exceed multiple objectives."
CCH ProSystem fx
Doc.It Workflow Manager
Knowledge Concepts Inc.
XCM Solutions/Xpitax LLC
DocuShare 6 CPX
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