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Document management vs. workpaper solutions.

In the last three columns, we looked at a number of decision steps an accounting firm takes when making the move to a paperless work environment. We also discussed how to estimate the benefits of making the move and the tools some firms already have in place to facilitate the paperless process. This month, we discuss a relatively new type of tool for accounting firms--document management software.

In previous columns, we also covered how accounting firms use electronic file room tools and workpaper applications to organize workpapers and--to a limited degree--protect the workpapers while managing their creation and review process. Document management software offers much stronger controls over documents--from inception to completion--than they do with workpaper applications. In addition, document management tools affect every aspect of a firm, including client services, firm management, communications and human resources.

Key capabilities of document management applications control the creation of documents, organizing them and providing access to them. While some document management features overlap those of workpaper applications, there are differences, including timing, accessing information and security.

Timing

Workpaper tools typically operate with the user saving a document, creating a workpaper and then linking the document to the workpaper. In contrast, document management systems control documents at the point of creation. For example, when creating a Microsoft (MS) Word or MS Excel document, the application asks questions in order to first identify the entity (client, prospect or center of influence) and then determine what type of document it is and what it relates to (service and year). Answers to those questions direct where the document is stored in the application. Document management solutions also integrate tightly with the firm's scanning solution. Elements such as bar coding and cover sheets make it easy to batch scanned documents with very little effort.

Accessing Information

Accessing information in a document management system is different from how it is accessed in a workpaper tool. Workpaper tools provide a "visual' filing structure that is similar to the manual indexing systems many firms have used for years. While some document management applications have this same capability, all document management systems have extensive search features. Using these features, you can specify search criteria, such as client name, service type or a particular Internal Revenue Code (IRC) section. The document management search engine looks at every aspect of every document and produces a list of those meeting the stated criteria.

This full-text search capability changes how a firm looks at these documents. Document organization is not just vertical (client, project, document); instead, by looking at documents from a "horizontal" orientation (type, creator, date, type), it is easier to use documents as a resource to provide similar services to different clients. This "product" approach is potentially quite profitable for firms.

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Accounting firms also benefit from the "pervasive" aspect of a document management system. Because a document management application controls every document, all firm members are required to use uniform processes--resulting in a substantial increase in document quality and value.

Security

The security features of a document management solution are much more extensive than those for workpaper tools. In a document management system, features such as access control, versioning and history tracking provide much tighter control and safeguarding of information.

Time to Choose

When it is time for your firm to look for a document management solution, there are a number of reliable vendors. Some of the vendors' products making their mark in accounting firms are CCH's ProSystem fx Document (www.prosystemfx.com), Thomson Creative Solutions' File Cabinet CS, (www.creativesolutions.thomson.com), Thomson RIA's GoFileRoom (www.ria.thomson.com), Doc-It (www.doc-it.net) and ColumbiaSoft's Document Locater (www.columbiasoft.com).

Planning is the most important aspect of implementing a document management solution. Since the application focuses on control, standardization and process automation, a firm must first define its processes. Document management tools enforce and support a firm's processes, but you cannot expect the software vendor to have all the answers. The most important factor in selecting software in the march toward making your office paperless is to fit the document management solution to the processes your firm already uses.

Tom Davis is owner of Tom C. Davis, CPA, LLC, and president of Knowledge Concepts, Inc. in Valdosta, Ga. Contact him at tdavis@tcdcpa.com or 229-247-9801.
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Author:Davis, Tom
Publication:The National Public Accountant
Date:Dec 1, 2006
Words:716
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