Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 10 seconds

Engagement Software Grows Up

When we first started looking at trial balance software ten years ago there was a laundry list of companies that we'd wade through for reviews. In reality, no company yet offered a complete collection of software  - trial balance, audit tools, paperless tracking - that we could label as engagement software.

The products on our list back then typically didn't include a complete suite of products. Finding a solution for an accounting office was a little like eating at a buffet. One vendor provided trial balance, another tax preparation and yet another analytical review software.  Put each dish on your tray and then when you got back to the table hope they all tasted good together.

Data integration between software programs was virtually unheard of. When done, it was frequently poor. And frustration with connecting different software gave way to the popular term of sneaker net whereby data from one package would be saved to a removable disk and transferred to yet another product (usually with much effort and frustration).

Fast forward to the present and today's list includes what may we consider the big three engagement software systems. Not only have they grown, they've aged and matured into integrated offerings that most organizations will want to adopt as a suite versus the buffet style computing of the past.

It's not that all the other packages went out of business or weren't strong candidates in their own right. Rather in many instances they were acquired by one of the big three. Creative Solutions married Thomson, so did GoSystem. This acquisition strategy resulted in fewer available software packages. Those that joined families of software were promptly integrated into one total solution, which in effect made buffet dining a thing of the past.

Integrated solutions today represent the future. All three of the packages discussed here offer cradle-to- grave solutions that can be used for basic writeup all the way to full audit and corporate tax preparation.

CS Professional Suite - Engagement CS and Trial Balance CS
Thomson Media
Dexter, Mich.
(800) 968-8900
Price: Engagement CS, $1,200 (four users). Trial Balance CS, $600 (non-network license).

The CS Professional suite draws heavily from the Creative Solution set of applications that have long since been integrated to become part of the Engagement CS and Trial Balance CS suite of accounting tools . As you should expect, Engagement CS provides security to ensure that only staff at proper levels have access to the data. The program also manages all the file locking to ensure only one person at a time can edit a client record.

Trial Balance CS of  software works based on a three-pane view that borrows from Windows Explorer. It allows the views to be changed based on what you're working on. There is a region for viewing trial balance totals, a region for notes on workpapers and one whole side of the program allows for selecting the appropriate financial item under review.

New engagements will start quickly because templates are used to create an initial setup. Existing clients will make use of a roll-forward capability in the software to create a fresh set of workpapers that draws upon the data from prior years' work.

If your firm uses the PPC line of practice aids, then you'll be right at home because PPC Checkpoint, PPC Practice Aids, PPC Workpapers and Smart Practice Aids can all be integrated into Engagement CS. If needed you can even directly integrate audit data to Capital Confirmation for audit confirmations.

Finally, to be sure that nothing has been missed with Engagement CS you'll want to use the Wrap-Up Wizard. This tool takes a final computer check of the data that you've entered and provides a report as to it's completeness. This invaluable tool will save some effort that previously had to be spent more closely supervising less experienced staff.

CaseWare Working Papers
   working papers logo
CaseWare International
Berkeley, Calif.
(800) 267-1317
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Price: Single user, $499; $1,399 (two to five users).

One big reason to select CaseWare Working Papers might be for the ability to import data from what appears to be the world's longest list of accounting packages. Most impressive is that from a quick review of the packages nearly all of them seem to be very current versions (QuickBooks 2009, MAS 90 4.3).

Imported data can include account numbers, descriptions, balances and transactions. In the unlikely event that one of your client's accounting systems is not listed on the site you can always export their data to an ASCII file format from which CaseWare will import.

Because CaseWare does not produce its own tax software you should look closely to ensure  they offer an export to the tax package your firm uses. If you are using ProSystem, GoSystem, UltraTax, ProSeries or any of the five other systems they list as supporting then you'll be able to directly connect and no re-keying will be needed between your trial balance and your tax software. The company takes requests for integrations and if your tax package isn't on their export list and enough companies request it then they'll build a data bridge.

CaseWare also uses a Windows Explorer-like interface which allows for easy navigation of the various sections of your working papers. One electronic binder holds all the working papers. Up to eight different electronic sign-offs can be assigned to each workpaper during the review process. Open issues are displayed along the bottom of the screen where completed (cleared) issues can be maintained as well as a list of open issues with classification by financial area.

Each year's working papers can be exported into a PDF format where they're all compiled into one electronic binder. Your data retention policy can be set so that no document is deleted before a certain date and that no changes may be made unless the appropriate security permissions are enabled.

CCH - ProSystem fx Engagement

CCHcch logo
Riverwoods, Ill.
(800) 739-9998
Price: Starts around $1,400, depending on modules.

ProSystem fx Engagement could be described as one huge extended family. Within Engagement you'll receive integration to Write-Up, ActiveData and Knowledge Tools, as well as over a dozen other programs (sold separately) that can integrate to Engagement  or more importantly feed data to the  packages like Tax where so much data ultimately is delivered (and clients billed for).

With so much work being done outside the office today, security is absolutely critical. Protecting data from unauthorized access is accomplished within Engagement  by group level passwords. Once you maintain the proper level of access (segmenting access by staff level is the most typical) then you can easily add or remove staff members from groups. Another nice touch is that electronic sign-offs can be tracked, changes can be locked so that only one staff at a time can be editing a section of data and once an engagement is complete workpapers can be locked against further changes.

Because most firms service a wide variety of clients, ranging from tiny start-ups to larger companies, simplicity and standardization of creating new client in the software is absolutely crucial. Engagement allows new companies to be created based on standardized firm-wide templates. And since all data is linked from one program to another you only need establish a company once to have the data shared in multiple places.

Engagement  offers PDF printing and filing of your working papers from any of the included applications into one main paperless binder. Retention policies can be maintained  to meet regulatory requirements. A Windows Explorer style browser allows for easy review of the paperless documents.

Deciding On One Engagement Solution

Each of the three solutions reviewed has specific benefits. For a firm that is heavily into tax preparation a solution such as that offered by CCH or Thomson clearly will have to edge due to the included integration to their own tax program.

However if you are working on more detail level transactions that involve importing data from your client's accounting software then CaseWare might be the better choice due to its ability import just about anything into your workpapers.

There is no one size that fits all. Rather the selection needs to be based upon the best fit for your firm's overall needs and only with this type of selection an you craft a great three course meal from what used to be a crazy buffet.

Wayne Schulz is the founder of Schulz Consulting. He began his career working for two professional service organizations and managing their consulting divisions. He has been active not only with the implementation of Sage MAS 90 and MAS 200 accounting software but often is engaged to help clients design or evaluate their current accounting procedures.

The philosophy of Schulz Consulting has been built around one of being a consulting firm first and a sales company last. This is evidenced by Wayne’s unwavering claim that he is the world’s worst salesman but perhaps one of the top at providing client service to his loyal base of clients (many of who have been with him since 1986).
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