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Cracking the WIP - How Workflow Tools Can Aid Productivity

For accountants, workflow tools are about gaining control of information. Rather than spending  hours running from office to office seeking to learn the status of that lost tax return or incomplete compilation, with a good workflow solution you are promised access to any client file at any stage of completion anywhere in your (real or virtual) office. Ideally these tools also let you check the status of client work, monitor due dates, manage staff time, and review actual versus budgeted time. As more firms have moved from paper to paperless, these electronic command and control systems have become increasingly important for those seeking to realize the full potential of their paperless systems.

Some systems offer insight into a single practice area, while others attempt to connect tax with audit and document management with time-and-billing applications. Most are still in their infancy, but from basic to advanced they promise a range of features that might help you get a handle on all of that precious work-in-process that is making its digital way around your office.

Sadly, all issues related to tracking client files and managing work in process cannot be addressed with technology alone. There is that pesky human element that always comes into play. Those worker bees who are busy moving those files from point A to point B (add adding billable value, of course) have to take the time to note such re-positioning (and value-adding) in the workflow solution.  That’s when product usability and accessibility become important.

But, workflow does not mean the same thing to everyone.  If you’re not careful, when you sit down to examine one solution or the other you won’t just be comparing apples to oranges, you’ll be comparing apples to armadillos. But it doesn’t have to be confusing. We’ll help you understand the different perspectives and unique features of the following five solutions:

•CaseWare Tracker
•SurePrep Express
•GoFileRoom FirmFlow
•ProSystem fx Workstream

CaseWare Tracker

CaseWare International
Berkeley, Calif.
(800) 267-1317     
Price : Free, Included with CaseWare Working Papers

CaseWare Tracker
CaseWare Tracker, which tracks workflow from an engagement workpaper perspective, is designed to give you a picture of the data moving through CaseWare Working Papers. It puts all client engagement information into a central location so team members can quickly review status and determine file locations.

Installed at no extra charge with CaseWare Working Papers, Tracker includes file utilities, customized views, and integration with the time and billing product, CaseWare Time.

Tracker offers customizable views to suit the needs of individuals or the entire firm. Once a series of filters and groupings are applied to a list of engagements, users can decide to save each view as personal or shared. Tracker is a view only tool; it does not modify the data stored in Working Papers or Time, but it allows you to quickly find, review status, and then access client data.

When it comes to staying on top of working paper files, Tracker is an cost-effective, no-frills way to keep everyone informed about client projects.  You certainly can’t beat the price.

SurePrep Express
Newport Beach, Calif.
(800) 805-8582    
Price: Starts at$30 per return with discounts for volume.

SurePrep Express

SurePrep approaches workflow from a firm communication perspective. This makes sense when you consider that SurePrep was one of the first U.S. companies to offer tax outsourcing to CPA firms. It developed the technology to manage it own business and later began offering workflow applications to CPA firms.

In addition to its Web-based tax return tracking and status tools, SurePrep Express also offers productivity aids. A key part of any workflow solution in this company's view. It offers a scan-and-populate system which extracts tax information from standard forms and sends it to the proper place on a tax return. So workflow to SurePrep literally means that the work flows from a source document to a tax return. There is also an image editor that enables accountants to annotate and manage client documents.

SurePres Express integrates with major 1040 tax solutions including GoSystem RS, ProSystem fx, Lacerte, UltraTax, and ProSeries. The company has just begun to offer outsourcing for business returns, so we might expect more attention to a Trial Balance application in the future.

With its Web-based interface and data extraction tools, SurePrep is a solid option for firms looking to improve their tax return processes and efficiency. 

Thomson Reuters
Dexter, Mich.
(800) 968-8900     
Price: Stand-alone module, $22 per month per user. GoFileRoom/FirmFlow bundle, starts at $3,950 a year, (five-users).

For Thomson, workflow is about collaboration.  FirmFlow, a module in the company's GoFileRoom system, starts from document management and extends outward across other areas of a CPA firm. While you would expect FirmFlow to integrate with other Thomson solutions, it also integrates with other vendors’ tax compliance, practice management, engagement, and portal solutions. Users of GoFileRoom will be particularly happy to know that FirmFlow is also tightly integrated with that product. 

FirmFlow is Web-hosted which means that although the application has not been rewritten for the Web (as a true “SaaS” or Software as a Service offering should be), it still offers remote access, offsite data storage, and other benefits of off-premise delivery to users.

Designed to support standardized practices across a firm, it includes centralized data access, built in due-date tracking, and electronic routing. FirmFlow is just one sibling in the “Flow” family of products which also includes ScanFlow and RecordsFlow as well as their third cousin once removed, TaxSort.

FirmFlow includes built in due-date monitoring, user customizable interfaces, routing notifications and real-time reporting, all managed in a familiar-looking tabbed folder desktop. Coming in 2010, if we are to believe the brochure, will be an updated homepage with improved data access.

For firms looking to automate all of their business processes from tax to audit to litigation support, FirmFlow provides a rich set of features in an intuitive interface. While it is a module within the GoFileRoom application, itself a part of the Thomson Reuters Enterprise Suite, FirmFlow is also offered for stand-alone use.

ProSystem fx Workstream
Riverwoods, Ill.
(800) 739-9998, option 1, then option 1
Price: Starts at $175.

ProSystem fx Workstream
CCH sees workflow as a way to manage client information as it moves through the ProSystem fx family of products. ProSystem fx Workstream uses an electronic route sheet plus a series of automated triggers to keep firms on top of the information stream. Notifications are made via e-mail or a well-designed visual dashboard whenever any of the following occur:

•Project status changes
•Steps are completed
•Planned dates arrive
•Budgets are met

Users can see who has what via a Web-based dashboard that includes project status, staff assignments and project budgets. Thanks to its series of templates, Workstream can be used as a basic due-date monitoring system or as a project management tool including budget-to-actual reporting. And have no fear about those firm mavericks who might try to change something - a template lockdown feature lets you block changes to the template.

Features include standard and custom reporting, a series of personalized views for project lists and “easy import of government forms”. I’m not sure why government forms are something you need in a workflow tool, but that’s just me.

This product, and the  foray into SaaS that it represents, was announced with great fanfare at the CCH user conference in October. The stated goal was to deliver “The Right Product for Every Firm for Every Workflow.” Here’s hoping that’s not an impossible dream or worse, marketing hype.

XCM Enterprise
Braintree, Mass.
(781) 356-5152     
Price: XCM Enterprise, $65 per user, $3 per client ($1,500 implementation/training fee); XCMessential (1-5 users), $95 per month;, XCMessential Plus (6-10 users), $150/month (both require an upfront $500 training/support fee); A free 30-day trial is offered for both.

XCM Enterprise
XCM views workflow from a solution-agnostic, platform independent perspective.
Web-based, XCM integrates with practice management, document management, due date tracking, budgeting and time-and-billing applications with a goal of offering accountants a firm-wide, comprehensive view of their practices. It uses a digital routing sheet to guide work around the office which can be tracked in reports built from client and management report templates.

Client files can be managed and tracked thanks to the product’s integration with ProSystem fx Document and Windows Explorer. XCM offers a recurring tasks feature that can streamline the efforts of staff members who’ve grown tired of repeating themselves.

If your work happens to flow around the globe, you might want to check out XCM’s firm-specific jurisdictions that enable the creation of custom due dates and extensions across the firm. You might also be interested in the “dynamic to do lists” which sound way more exciting than using a long chain of Post-It notes to keep track of your work in process.

The product has a simple uncluttered interface which is not surprising since the product is designed by CPAs. Access via the Web makes it easier for staff to use the product remotely but getting them to actually use this or any workflow solution might require some training and coaching.

XCM has three different workflow products designed to meet the needs (and budget requirements) of different sized firms wishing to keep their existing processes and technology.

Geni Whitehouse CPA.CITP, CSPM
Geni Whitehouse, CPA.CITP, CSPM is the Founder of Even a Nerd Can Be Heard, an organization focused on communication skills for smart people.  With past roles ranging from partner in a CPA firm to leader of the technology practice in a firm, she has a wide range of experiences to share.  She is a former software company executive and industry analyst and a two-time graduate of the Jeff Justice Comedy Workshoppe. She is passionate about finding interesting ways to talk about what some might consider boring subjects and has discovered that there is no shortage of material. She is the author of How to Make a Boring Subject Interesting : 52 ways even a nerd can be heard.
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