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James Bourke

Workflow Automation on the Rise

Here's why.

January 26, 2009
by James C. Bourke, CPA.CITP

Whether you are a CPA involved in public practice, industry, government or education, you should know that many aspects of your office workflow are now in digital format. Over the past few years automated tools have expanded to capture the flow of projects through various disciplines in the current practice.

History

It was not that long ago that we were manually tracking client projects and other engagements in manual logs. As CPAs started implementing systems to handle tax preparation, engagement administration, practice and time management, depreciation, research, etc. each of these systems had their own unique way of managing and/or tracking projects that were run through their system.

The problem that developed over time is that many CPAs would choose applications to meet their needs, based upon a "best-of-breed" theory. That theory drove CPAs to pick the application that was the best fit for their need, regardless of vendor. Over time, while the application may have been a perfect fit from a tax, an accounting and auditing or a practice-management perspective, it created a significant problem. It caused the workflow to become disconnected because one application would not communicate with another application.

This disconnect became most evident in contact management. The largest problem experienced by firms was the inability to quickly and easily manage a client mailing list. To change a client address, many firms were forced to go into two, three or more applications to accomplish this task.

Today

To help alleviate this disconnect, many CPAs have started to move away from the "best-of-breed" approach and migrate back to the "suite approach." This "suite approach" allows a CPA to choose most or all of their application needs from a specific vendor because of which the information needs flow seamlessly from one application to the next. The complaint about this approach is that although one application may be the perfect fit, another may have a lot to be desired. So for many firms, the information disconnect has been building for many years.

Larger firms and organizations dealt with this issue by engaging programmers to link and sometimes share the data in the multitude of applications being used. However, for the smaller practice, the ability to solve this dilemma was financially beyond their reach.

The recently-released AICPA Top Technology Initiatives for 2009 points to the importance of workflow automation in our industry: "Business Process Improvement, Work Flow and Process Exception Alerts" landed as number four in this year's list of 10. The initiative list defines this initiative as:

Business Process Improvement initiatives assist with controlling and documenting processes across the organization, most commonly in accounting or content management (paperless) applications. Transaction processing and audit trails are being replaced with automated processes, workflow, exception alerts and electronic authorizations.

View Top Technology Initiatives for 2009, for more information on this and the other rankings.

So Where Are We Today?

Vendors have started to enter our marketplace with solutions to this problem. As with any other business model, many of these vendors are focusing on areas where we practice, where they will get the "biggest bang for their buck" and make the largest impact within the profession. That initial target area has been in the area of tax preparation.

Ironically, some of these early workflow "tax" solutions have been around for quite some time. A few were actually developed to meet the needs of tracking the flow of return preparation using the outsourcing model. Firms that outsourced some or all of their tax preparation would utilize these tax workflow tools to track the status and progression of each return through the outsourcing process.

As CPAs started to search for solutions to meet this workflow need, outsourcing vendors started to listen and realized that they already had an application in place that could be tailored to meet this growing need.

Today, a handful of these outsourcing entities are marketing next generation workflow applications that, although primarily focusing on the tax side of the practice, are being marketed as total workflow solutions for our industry. Many of them are starting to pull it off.

In addition, new vendors are appearing on the horizon that are focusing on the "total firm" workflow solution. These vendors are introducing applications that are reaching into the various databases that are utilized by CPAs on a daily basis. Some of these vendors have created "dashboard" tools that give CPAs the ability to visually get a snapshot of the status of all ongoing projects, regardless of the application or vendor that is being utilized to meet that need.

The next few years will see a proliferation of these workflow tools throughout our industry. It won't be long before the big software players in our marketplace recognizes the need to develop solutions that pull together information from various vendors and deliver it to the desktop.

Keep an eye on the AICPA's InfoTech Web site as new content becomes available around this initiative. In addition, consider membership in the IT Member Section and obtaining the Certified Information Technology Profession (CITP) certification from the AICPA for access to more in-depth content, tools and data in this area.

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James C. Bourke, CPA, CITP, is a Partner at WithumSmith+Brown, where he is Director of Firm Technology. He is a past president of the New Jersey Society of CPA’s and currently serves on AICPA Council and the Chair of the AICPA CITP Credential Committee. He was recently named by Accounting Today as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the Profession.