For today's accounting firms,the importance of having some form of dedicated workflow system has become nearly on par with data security and document management.

For everything a firm does, whether it's dealing with tax forms or audits and engagements, there are processes and numerous electronic documents that go along with them. Having some tool to manage and track them has become even more essential.

While workflow management as a software tool is somewhat new to the CPA world, it has grown in use and necessity far beyond tracking tax processes.

Cloud-based workflow management software provider XCM has targeted CPAs for the past several years. Their goal has been to automate workflow for every process that a firm has, and as more firms begin their journey towards becoming completely paperless, having some form of workflow system is absolutely essential, according to XCM chief executive Mark Albrecht. He stressed that the need for a good workflow system is, for a CPA firm, all about efficiency equaling profitability.

"In the years before XCM, people never would focus on process in a CPA firm. Everyone focused on driving more business, and now there's a change in that firms are starting to say if the top line isn't growing as much as I'd like, you have to look at how efficient you are and becoming paperless is a big key for that," said Albrecht. "Even for the smaller [firms], they need a central repository of information. I may be a two-person shop, but I have people who administrate the tax returns and now you don't have paper and you have the information in front of you. Everyone can benefit from a consistent, repeatable process." Last year XCM conducted a survey of 500 clients and asked them during the busy season how much time XCM saves. They reported saving an average of 85 minutes per person per day.

THE FIRMS WEIGH IN

Woburn, Mass.-based DiCicco, Gulman & Co. has two offices and an 85-person staff. They have always had some form of workflow process, though it was not automated until 2003 when the firm began using XCM. The firm has since expanded its use of workflow tools as the tools have become more available for the products and services the firm uses, according to principal Laura Barooshian.

"Whether it's your tax software provider or document management software, they need to be making those changes [adding workflow]. We always ask how we can improve what we do and does a program improve the processes we have," said Barooshian.

In addition to XCM, DiCicco Gulman uses CCH Document as its document management software, which features the built-in workflow solution Workstream. "I like the fact that it's built in the program, and ... I like where it's going. Sometimes programs come out and aren't quite ready," said Barooshian.

Carmel, Calif.-based BBR LLP also has two offices and recognizes that workflow has become an essential part of the software it uses as it has moved toward a paperless environment. The firm utilizes GoFileRoom from Thompson Reuters for its document storage. The product features FirmFlow, a digital process that lets users monitor activity from start to finish.

"There are several benefits to using an electronic product, but the ability to search the database for a specific return or group of returns in a particular step is one of the greatest benefits," explained Thomas Atherton, a CPA with BBR. "You have the ability to judge how the firm is doing with production, so you can estimate the personnel needs from the present to the next deadline. All firms could benefit [from workflow solutions] because they can track everything they have going on if it is used properly. In my opinion it is a great replacement for the Excel and paper lists that were used to track all of the work in the office."

PART OF THE PACKAGE

Many other accountant-focused products are featuring built-in workflow tools as well.

Document storage product maker eFileCabinet Inc. has been focusing more of its business on CPAs lately, and in September it added a workflow component with the release of its Version 5.0 product. The company spent the past year designing the workflow feature and received considerable feedback from the CPA community in its making, according to chief executive Matt Peterson.

"We did a survey last fall before we started building [the workflow component]. We asked what was the perception of workflow and what [CPAs] needed it to do. We got a lot of answers, and many said they'd be interested in a workflow component, but it seems complicated," said Peterson. "I've seen workflow systems before and they can be complicated. What we have is a very simplistic routing system; we are scalable and it can be more detailed if [users] need it to be. What we have found is workflow is something you can keep adding to. We have developed something that will work for a typical office [of one-to-five people]."

Tax document automation provider Copanion realized the need for a workflow component early on and added it to its flagship GruntWorx product.

Copanion CEO Ed Jennings stressed that while workflow may mean different things to different firms, the key to having it at all for CPAs to use is keeping it simple. "Our solution does have workflow as a component to support our process of gathering, organizing and populating tax data. That said, our process is very simple, i.e., uploading documents and downloading the processed information," he said. "We deliberately keep our application very easy to use. We prefer to leverage the capabilities within Excel, Adobe, CPAs' tax software and their document management systems."

Princeton, N.J.-based of WithumSmith+ Brown is no stranger to automated workflow. It has utilized XCM for the past two tax seasons and, more recently, Copanion. The firm felt so strongly about the use of workflow for its 400-plus staff that it had its IT department create XCM as the homepage for all users and locked it so no one at the firm could change it. This policy will be relaxed in the near future, but WS+B partner Jim Bourke said that the message has hit home.

"Workflow has been very well embraced here since we placed XCM in everyone's face so they had to do it. We are now developing a new intranet here and that will be the new home page, where the workflow software will be found just like with all other software because that's what they need to do," said Bourke. "A workflow tool should be in a position to know where any work product is, not just a tax document. We came into this digital world, and so many [firms] are still using manual tracking of their work. It just makes sense to automate it all right now."

Bourke also noted that since using Copanion in 2009, the firm has saved an average of two hours per return, especially data entry on complex returns. It also netted $200-$300 more profit per return, on average, across some 3,000 returns.

While there are numerous built-in or stand-alone workflow solutions available on the market, Bourke also noted that workflow can vary from firm to firm, and there is a growing trend to customize workflow solutions to fit a particular firm's needs.

Denver-based Ehrhardt, Keefe, Steiner & Hottman is among the firms that saw the need for automated workflow, and decided to build its own based on the availability of customizable tools and the need for an individualized workflow system.

Three years ago, the firm began using Metastorm, a customizable workflow solution that allowed the firm to use SharePoint - which most of the firm was already familiar with - as the main interface.

"We didn't want to go with an off-the-shelf product, as we wanted something we could build firm-wide. It's one tool, but we built it so it works across the firm," said Duane Squire, director of information systems at EKS&H

Through its IT department and Metastorm, the firm has built workflows for its tax, billing, engagements, administrative needs, vacations, and new client data entry.

"We wanted to have a standard process, and having five managers with five different [workflow] processes wasn't cutting it," said Squire. "We wanted to focus; the market's tighter and we needed to become more efficient. This is an evolution that is less about technology and more about change."

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