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James Bourke
James Bourke
 

CMS, Workflow Management Tools, Cloud Computing, Oh My

Why it is imperative to place the right technology tools into your staff’s hands.

April 26, 2010
by James Bourke, CPA.CITP

In today’s CPA Firm, the utilization of the “right” or “wrong” technology can mean the difference between a profitable and unprofitable engagement. This list includes some of the “must have” technologies in today’s CPA firm.

Document/Content Management System

A document or content management system is an absolute must in today’s environment. Some of the early adopters jumped into this technology over five years ago when vendors started to enter our space. Today this technology has matured and all of the primary vendors serving our industry have offerings to meet the needs of a CPA firm.

Along with this technology comes the need for ancillary technologies such as dual monitors. At a minimum every employee in a CPA firm should be using two monitors. It is not uncommon to see three, four or more monitors configured to enhance productivity.

Another technology necessary under this environment is the utilization of good quality, portable scanners. Portable scanners should be deployed to every single professional and administrative support personnel in the firm. Although I am a big advocate for deployment of “industrial strength” scanners/copiers in the firm, I am also a believer that in order to get 100 percent buy-in on a document/content management system and to capture 100 percent of “paper” that floats through the firm, putting a portable scanner within the reach of every user is a must. The cost of an under-$500 for a good quality, dual page scanner is well worth it.

Workflow Management Tools

Nearly every piece of work-product that makes its way through today’s CPA firm is in or can easily be converted to a digital format. So why is it that firms continue to manually track tax returns, engagements, special projects and more? Manually includes hand-written tracking, as well as utilization of tools such as Excel, Word, etc.

Some good, automated workflow solutions have recently entered our space. These solutions track jobs from the point from which they entered the firm to delivery of the final work product, with details of every important milestone along the way.

When selecting a solution in this area, look for one that does not focus on solving workflow for a specific area of the firm (such as, tax). Instead, look for a solution that solves the “firm’s” workflow needs and one that can be utilized by all staff, regardless of area of specialty or work.

Scan and Populate

With a few tax seasons behind them, the limited number of vendors in this space are starting to perfect their offerings.

Scan and populate is a technology that has the ability to extrapolate information from source documents such as W-2s, 1099s, 1098s, K-1s and more and automatically populating the extracted data into your tax software.

If you are looking for this technology to 100 percent complete a client’s tax return with no human intervention, you’ve set your bar too high. However, if you are looking to increase realization on the tax side of your practice and change the historic role of the tax preparer, your expectation is more realistic.

Although still trying to take hold in our profession, this technology will continue to mature and get better as it becomes perfected. But even at today’s level, if utilized correctly, this technology will definitely increase realization rates in the tax practice.

Portal

With clients demanding near instantaneous access to their financial information and work-product produced by the firm, the utilization of a portal is a must.

If not demanded by your clients, federal and state rules surrounding privacy, confidentiality and third-party access to private information should convince the firm that a portal deployment is a must.

A portal today is much more than a place to “put” client files for access by clients. A good portal is a place in which clients and staff collaborate and share information securely and confidentially.

Many portal offerings are bi-directional, allowing both the CPA and client to easily share financial information and source documents at a central location.

Recently, portal offerings have exploded as “cloud computing” concept made inroads into firms. Some of the vendors in this space have dramatically expanded the portal idea. Today’s portals are transforming the way that CPA firms do business with their clients. Clients are now beginning to use the CPA firm portal to conduct business. I recently spoke with one of the vendors that are taking a huge initiative in this area and they said:

“ … We have a philosophy that portals should be a medium for conducting business with your clients, not just a way to exchange documents. So our solution allows clients to pay bills, exchange payroll data, print checks, manage staff intranets (i.e. Web employee), and hold account aggregation data. We want to give your clients a reason to come to your website. It allows the firm to present themselves as the financial destination site …”

Watch out for cloud computing to really catch on over the next few years.

Encryption

Another must is the encryption of data stored on mobile devices. This includes everything from hard drives on laptops, Universal Serial Bus (USB) drives and memory cards inserted into mobile devices.

If deployed correctly, many of today’s encryption technologies protect CPA firms from the notification and financial consequences resulting from the loss of confidential and private data. In addition, these technologies help to protect the reputation of the firm in the event confidential and/or private client data gets into the wrong hands.

Utilization of the Cloud

An article on CPA firm technologies would not be complete without mentioning the “cloud.”

If your firm has not tested one of the many offerings taking advantage of the power of the Internet, now is the time.

Nearly every major vendor in the CPA environs offers this concept in solving some need for the firm. Whether you are looking for tax preparation, engagement management, time and billing, workflow management, document/content management and more, there is a solution on the “cloud” to meet your needs. Many of these new solutions have been built from the ground up, not simply legacy application service provider (ASP) applications that have been renamed to conform to current trends.

Conclusion

As we continue to become more mobile and our clients continue to demand near instantaneous responses to inquiries and quicker turnaround time on engagements, all of these technologies will help your firm to meet those demands.

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James C. Bourke, CPA.CITP, CFF, is a partner at WithumSmith+Brown where he is director of Firm Technology. He is a past president of the New Jersey Society of CPAs 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.