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James Bourke
 

Technologies to Green-up Your Practice

Nine tweaks that can help improve your firmís efficiency in a paperless world.

March 28, 2011
by James Bourke, CPA.CITP

TechBytes

By now your firm has likely adopted technologies that have the "ability" to not only enhance profitability and increase realization but also help green-up the environment. Contrary to popular belief, many of us are still generating a significant amount of paper and in some cases, more paper than in years past.

There is no question that migration from a paper-based office to a paperless office has the potential to increase realization, boost productivity, streamline the sharing of information within your organization and enhance your ability to protect confidential and private information that may be contained on those documents.

However, that same migration will more often than not result in the utilization of more paper and related resources. For many that have made the migration they would probably agree that they likely see as much — if not more paper today — than they did five years ago. Why is that?

As firms go from a pure paper-based environment to a paperless environment, they will often implement a combination of applications and tools to accomplish this task. They include:

  • A document-management application
  • A "Portable Document Format" (PDF) tool such as Adobe
  • Portable and/or stationary scanners
  • Dual monitors

These tangible components are critical to the successful implementation of a paperless solution for a CPA. However, the missing piece is generally a "retooling" of the manual-workflow process involving the flow of data from point of entry through point of delivery.

When an organization invests in a paperless solution, time needs to be spent examining the various functional workflows that currently exist. A workflow process that was functional and efficient in a paper-based environment can end up being terribly inefficient in a paperless environment.

Tax

By examining the Tax area of a firm, a significant reduction in the generation of paper can easily be realized. Here are some best practices in the tax area that can help your Firm go from that legacy environment that you have practiced in since starting your practice, to a "Greener" 2011 and beyond.

Research: The days of paper-based research are over and have been over for quite some time. This area of the practice has made the leap to go "Green" and has done it well. I get a chuckle when I walk into a library or conference room at a CPA firm today. Many of these firms still have the traditional paper-based books from organizations such as RIA, CCH, BNA, etc. However, instead of being functional, these old publications line the walls and bookshelves within the firm as decorations and memories of a time gone past. Nearly every firm that I meet with has migrated to web-based solutions from each of these vendors and have eliminated the tremendous paper waste that was experienced by all of us in continually updating these libraries (some weekly).

Preparation: Although firms have done a good job in jumping into one of the server or web-based tax preparation solutions, many have not done a good job of eliminating the generation of paper throughout the process.

Historically many firms followed this process …

  1. Early January, the firm prints an organizer, places it in an envelope and mails it to the client.
  2. By mid-February the client stops by the office along with their organizer (often unopened) and their source documents.
  3. CPA firm staff photocopies source documents and places them in a new file folder to house the current-year tax information.
  4. CPA firm staff key-in information into tax application and generate a paper copy of the return.
  5. CPA firm reviewer marks up paper copy of return and sends it back to preparer for revisions.
  6. CPA firm staff makes reviewer changes and reprints paper copy of return and sends reprinted return back to reviewer for final review.
  7. CPA firm reviewer either approves reprinted return or sends back to preparer (step five again) for additional changes, resulting in another reprinted return.
  8. Once ready for processing, administrative staff duplicate return, with one copy for the federal government, one copy for each state/city, one copy of the client and one copy for the firm file.
  9. Final package is assembled, signed off and mailed to the client.

The above nine steps don’t assume that the issuance of "corrected" 1099s, additional information from the client or late arriving K-1s, will require reruns, resulting in the reprinting of multiple copies of the returns once again.

As sad as this is, many reading this article may be thinking the above nine-step workflow process is pretty close to my workflow process today. This may also be coming from a firm that has implemented many state-of-the-art technology solutions and tools to help with the process.

As previously indicated, the tangible components are one piece of the solution, while a retooling or re-education of your staff is the "more-critical" other piece of the "Going Green" solution.

Waste No More

There are so many ways to cut down on the generation of paper and waste in this process. A simple tweaking of those nine steps can be:

  • If your firm still wants to go down the organizer route, you can take advantage of one of the online electronic organizer solutions offered by many of the vendors in the space or simply print an organizer (in PDF format) directly to a client portal, allowing the client to access the digital copy of the organizer remotely and securely.
  • By mid-February the client can still stop by the office (as many still prefer the face-to-face meeting on an annual basis) and drop off their source documents.
  • Your administrative staff scan source documents and place them in a document management solution.
  • Your administrative staff can use one of the new scan-and-populate technologies to auto-populate the tax-preparation application and then firm staff can key-in the remaining information. No hard copy is printed.
  • Your reviewer reviews the prepared tax return on one of your dual monitors and annotates or digitally notes changes required to be made.
  • Your staff makes reviewer changes and notifies administrative staff that return is ready to be assembled after changes have been reviewed. No hard copy is printed.
  • Once ready for processing, administrative staff print return to PDF and prepare for publishing on the client portal and in the firm's document-management solution. In addition, only the necessary forms required for client signature or governmental filing would be printed manually.
  • Your staff verifies the PDF file and publishes it to the client portal.
  • Final (much smaller) package is assembled, signed off and sent to the client, with the client complete final deliverable via a portal.

Conclusion

I will be the first to admit that there are many ways to increase efficiencies in the above nine steps, but the point of this presentation is to show how easy it is to get a little bit greener within each of our practices. By putting a little bit of thought into each step, best practice steps can be developed easily to cut down on the flow of paper and the generation of waste.

Tax is only one of the many areas of the practice that can benefit from such an exercise. Nearly every area of our practice results in a paper-deliverable and multiple-printed drafts leading up to that final product. The technologies are readily available. We just need to examine the flow of work through the process to help create a truly paperless environment within our profession.

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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 has been continually named by Accounting Today as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the Profession.