Paperless debate: What next?
For the past few months, AccountingWEB and its members have been exploring the “second wave” benefits of paperless office technology. With firms large and small adopting paperless methods, John Stokdyk highlights further possibilities for applying the technology.
Practice technology consultant and document management discussion group leader Charles Verrier led many of the discussions, backed by comments from Kevin Salter and numerous other Accounting members. Most of those who contributed to the debate accepted that paperless systems could save office space, make documentation more secure, improve efficiency and so reduce costs within practices. Instead, we focused on areas were the benefits were less easy to quantify, but probably more significant for practitioners in the long run:
- Better client service, driven by faster access to client data within the firm, and through online portals that allow documents to be shared and transferred. Faster access to archived papers and better quality documentation creates a better impression, not just with clients, but also with quality assurance inspectors, Verrier noted.
- Automating internal workflows - Workflow tools are increasingly common within practice management programs and make it possible to can set up alerts, assign tasks and route files as they are scanned or actioned to the people who need to view or work on them next. The paperless ethos becomes less about storing and accessing files than creating an electronic environment that allows different departments and the clients themselves to collaborate on work in progress.
- Managing the tax workload - Our most recent article in January struck a chord by examining how paperless and workflow software could be used to streamline processes during the Self Assessment peak. Kevin Salter shared the experiences of how his firm Glover Stansbury operated during tax season. He challenged the assumption that brown paper bag jobs were beyond the paperless treatment. Turning the clients’ tax data into digital information at an earlier stage makes it easier to pull it into the electronic workflow that already exists around tax work. Rather than sitting neglected in physical files, documents like P60s, P11D and bank/dividend statements that typically arrive in dribs and drabs during the year can be scanned and organised into an electronic equivalent for more rapid recall. Some programs will also import the key data into tax calculations.
As we have seen, many firms are already achieving these benefits. This article draws on the feedback to those previous articles to answer the question, “What next?” As always, insights from members who are actually considering or doing this stuff is very welcome.
As a technology evangelist, Charles Verrier subscribes to the view that technology can help foster best practice: “Computers are very good at enforcing business rules and policies,” he says. Once an electronic document management system is in place, it can provide the foundation for cross department case management, as seen at Glover Stansbury and other firms, where scanning and OCR software are used to speed the collection and organisation of client books and records.
Cloud and hosted solutions
The conversation about tax processing moved on to hosted desktop systems and Cloud computing: if you’re going paperless, why not move to a software environment that makes it even easier to collaborate with clients?
Many of the firms that have pushed ahead with second wave paperless processes are larger - even if the software costs and cultural issues have put a brake on proceedings, as at Burton-Sweet. But sole practitioners have an advantage here, as Ledgerscope’s Adrian Pearson explained, since they only need to worry about themselves, sole practitioners can “do their own thing” and don’t need to worry about office standards and what other people think. Sole practitioner “Tax Teddy” took this route and claimed to have made his firm almost entirely paperless for the cost of a scanner with a document feed (about £200). “Other than that, it has become simply a question of changing my working habits,” he explained.
The third wave
TaxTeddy’s experiences are something that Charles Verrier has seen taking root among Top 20 firms. Once documents are stored electronically, they can be organised, searched, and shared in ways that are not possible with paper. Along with access to online reference materials, the electronic document store can be indexed and search so that members of staff can find out what else has been done on a particular issue or client before. “Client filing transforms from a necessary evil to a valuable resource that can be mined for information at a moment’s notice,” Verrier argues.
- Paperless practice - recent articles and discussions
- IT Zone library: Paperless office
- Kevin Salter’s ‘Practical Guide to the Paperless Office’ - (free for online survey participants)
For a more detailed examination of these issues, download Charles Verrier's whitepaper for CCH, 'Realising the next wave of benefits', or join him in AccountingWEB’s Document management discussion group.