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?

Smaller practitioners

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.

Further reading

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.

Continued...

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Comments
torbenhalvorsen's picture

PaperLess Practice Waves

torbenhalvorsen | | Permalink

John,

I think that another factor that could be added into the debate is Risk Management.

With Workflow management in place within a practice there is the opportunity for Risk Management and the reduction of the risks associated with loss of documentation, even if it is a temporary loss.

Security is a further issue as it would seem perhaps reasonable to ensure that User Right control over the potential deletion of documents, and Access Control over who can access certain documentation would all be manageable within a practice wide system.

Phil

Accounting the PaperLess way™

 

 

 

cverrier's picture

Evangelist? Guilty (but a pragmatic one)

cverrier | | Permalink

I'll happily admit to being a technology evangelist, but pragmatism is vital where technology is concerned.   A vital touchstone for me is the phrase "This is a business, not a science experiment".   I sympathise with Nigel Harris, and would be the first to advise him NOT to try and use a computerised workflow if he can't find one that makes business sense.

I would agree that computerised workflow is still not something that really exists for most firms (although I can think of some notable exceptions).

I don't think that suppliers have done a very good job of explaining 'workflow' to the profession.   It's one of those phrases that has been bandied about rather a lot - meaning different things to different people (a bit like 'CRM').

Unlike some other professions, the concept of 'case management' hasn't really taken hold with accountants.  Rather than operating in a holistic way, most software offerings tend to operate at the departmental level -  Each department has their pet system, but there's little that monitors and controls how workload takes place across the practice as a whole.

Workflow technology can sometimes be its own worst enemy.   A rigid risk-averse set of business rules can be a godsend when dealing with a scary litigious PLC client, but becomes a bureaucratic nightmare with small client jobs.   It's very tempting to over-engineer things in a way that ends up with inappropriate complexity and frustrated users.

I'm beginning to see signs of that changing - practices are beginning to look past how to squeeze the maximum margin out of the compliance 'sausage machine' work and instead consider the use of technology to help with wider issues such as overall workload management, improved client service, and identifying opportunities for advisory work.  Software suppliers are also starting to think about what they can do to offer products that can help.

 

derek44's picture

Workflow Rules

derek44 | | Permalink

I agree with Charles that getting work-flow rules introduced that provide a 'light touch' without losing too much flexibility is important. Implementing paper-less systems that provide a mail-room function for scanning incoming post (or when storing and forwarding email correspondence) can be made over-complicated. Working with DocuSoft software over the years I have always aimed to keep things as simple to use as possible.

Unfortunately I have seen some quite good software systems implemented very badly by both the supplier AND the customer with the result that the expected benefits have not been enjoyed. My advice in general is to keep things as easy to work with as possible. Don't overcomplicate. Identify a way to start simply and then develop over time. It is not just a matter of computers. It takes time for people to get used to new working practices and acquire new habits.

I don't keep original signed accounts and tax returns

chatman | | Permalink

I don't even keep original signed accounts and tax returns any more. I just keep the electronic versions.

Paul Scholes's picture

Don't knock it till you've tried it

Paul Scholes | | Permalink

I can still remember the huge resistance to the "paperless" message 5-6 years ago but like so many radical ideas once someone dips their toes, and doesn't lose them, the process begins and, as Derek says, the key is to start simply and, I would add, slowly.

Once a firm has implemented even the most basic of less-paper policies and managed to keep everyone on board (especially the odd partner) then, without the physical burden and limits of paper, ICT avenues open up to better ways to use, store or delete the information and we found ourselves naturally dropping checklists, to-do lists, and making more use of the software we already had, in particular Iris Practice Management.

Having stood in front of the machine many times I can understand why people see scanning, and what system to use with it, as being a huge obstacle but, again, once you start down the road it soon becomes clear that you only have to scan stuff that people send you and so, if you stop them sending it (and recognise that some paper is just that and it can go straight into recycling) the machine can sit there for days unused.

Finally, had we not followed the above processes the benefits of a hosted environment would not have been of value to us, ie what's the point in being able to work on a clients' affairs from anywhere in the world if their records, files and work monitoring is stuck in an office, cupboard or filing cabinet.

Unless you are a large firm and can try it out an office at a time, moving to a hosted environment is not really something you can do slowly but planning for it should be.  It was still our biggest leap of faith but we haven't looked back.

My next stage....no office.

 

 

 

@Paul Scholes

chatman | | Permalink

Paul - does that mean you have hosted desktops?

Paul Scholes's picture

@chatman    1 thanks

Paul Scholes | | Permalink

Hi there - yes indeed, as I said, despite slow planning involving a lot of research, talking to other users and trying to anticipate what we'd suddenly lose, it was still a leap of faith to leave the office Friday with our own server and all the stuff that goes with it and return on Monday morning disconnect the network, switch off the server and use remote desktop on our PCs to login to all our software & files on a server hundreds of miles away.

 

Hosted Desktops

chatman | | Permalink

Paul - I understand Hosted Accountants provides a programme for accessing the desktop. Can your desktop be accessed from a normal browser, for example from an internet cafe?

Paul Scholes's picture

Hosted Desktops

Paul Scholes | | Permalink

Hi chatman - We use Hosted Desktop UK not Hosted Accountants but I'm sure most work in a similar fashion in that you don't use a browser but the "remote desktop connection" facility that is in Windows and can be downloaded for Macs.  We used the same facility to login to our PCs when out the office "in the old days".

So it makes no difference where you are or what you are using (but don't think Windows Home edition has it) as long as you have the connection & login details noted down somewhere when using someone else's machine. 

Am happy to discuss this further, just PM me.

 

 

Hosted Accountants Ltd's picture

Hosted Desktops

Hosted Accounta... | | Permalink

Paul/Chatman

Correct, the easiest way is to use RDP which is available in Windows as standard or from the App store for typically £8 one-off purchase. That allows you to use your Apple device in the same way.

We also have a "web connector" which allows you access without RDP and is useful if you are using a PC in a disaster situation, lose or break your laptop, or need to access your applications in an emergency (stuck in an airport and using an internet cafe). It has zero footprint but is not the primary way our customers use our solution.

By all means call or PM for more information. 

Thanks

Dan

www.hostedaccountants.co.uk

Disadvantages of accessing desktop via browser

chatman | | Permalink

Thanks Paul and Dan for your responses. Dan - what are the disadvantages of accessing your desktop via a browser?

Hosted Accountants Ltd's picture

Disadvantages    1 thanks

Hosted Accounta... | | Permalink

There are no disadvantages - you can run everything in the same way, although you will want to make sure any print or scanning options are configured by your hosting provider ahead of time.

It really depends how often you are going to use a non RDC machine or device? Probably not very often but useful to have as a failsafe.

Dan

Thanks Dan

chatman | | Permalink

Thanks Dan