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AIA

Viztopia Practice Management v4.1. By John Stokdyk

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30th May 2006
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Back in the late 1990s, when I first ventured into the world of practice software, a company called CSM advanced the revolutionary idea of a Windows-based "accountant's desktop".

CSM is history now, but the desktop concept lives on - and has pretty much become the standard interface for practice management software. Like rival products from Sage, CCH and Digita, Version 4.1 of Viztopia Practice Management (VPM) is built around a personal portal not unlike the view you encounter when opening Microsoft Outlook.

Instead of incoming emails, VPM's default view is a central dashboard with charts displaying aged debts and outstanding work in progress. The top 10 clients in each category are listed below the graphs, with hyperlinks to take you through to the underlying records. Links to common tasks and other software modules are stacked on the left-hand side of the screen.

If this view is not to your taste, there are alternatives such as a bar chart illustrating progress on your current assignments. VPM also gives you several ways to create your own personal layout by dragging and dropping elements on to your work area from a screen layout tool box. Client and project lists are made up of spreadsheet-like grids, which you can resize, rearrange and sort into more suitable views. This is what you come to expect from good Windows software these days.

The integrated desktop has a lot to recommend it. It gives you instant access to your key clients and practice management measures, while the on-screen hyperlinks and task launch buttons save valuable time by letting you dive straight into the functional module you need to use next.

However, with the Outlook-style interface becoming a de facto standard, it becomes harder to differentiate practice products. As a result, the point of a software review like this is to find evidence of the application's operational mechanics and identify innovations or features that will make a practical difference to the ultimate user. The ability to extract meaningful client data - particularly for business development work - and to track client communications are two key areas where practice management suites can make a difference.

So how does VPM stand up to these tests? MYOB's product managers told me that, interface aside, new workflow tools linking resources & staffing, scheduling and time & fees modules into a seamless whole were the most significant enhancement in VPM 4.1. A web-based timesheet system has also been added for the new release.

VPM made an excellent impression when I started off by creating a new client. Clicking the client icon and choosing the New command fired up a five-step Wizard that captured the contact details and offered some useful pull-down menus to help identify the client's industry sector and other attributes set up within the database.

I had a go at creating a golf/handicap data field and after some failed experiments with the data types (storing a number so I could search on their handicaps), I got the result I wanted.

We'll return to client data later. Having activated my contact as a client, VPM pointed me towards its Scheduling module, where I was able to assign budgets and staff to the new client. This included a very slick graphical Gant charts, on which I was able to set out the job's duration and some milestones.

There were hidden depths to this program, but for the purposes of this review, I was thankful there was a readymade template for a simple accounts job. By dragging staff icons on to the bar chart, I was able to assign an accounts manager to oversee the client and choose one of his juniors to carry out the accounts prep work. As a partner, I kept control of the billing.

There were some neat touches here - if you have a task on your 'to do' list, you can drag it across and drop it into your timesheet to create the entry automatically. If used with discipline, the interlinked planning, scheduling, timesheet and billing modules create a workflow infrastructure that provides an instant progress check the partner can monitor from client, WIP, billing and project overview screens.

Looking at the visual progress chart for my new client (and impressed by my team's instant turnaround), I double-clicked the graphical project bar to examine the unposted work in progress. I could have approved the entry, but instead decided to do an accrual and output a bill for the preparation element of the work. A couple more clicks - and borrowing some text from a similar job - and my bill was sitting in Word, ready to be sent to the client.

In spite of my initial struggles, VPM easily handled the golf handicap test for client marketing. To extract client information, VPM includes an extensive collection of reports, plus layout tools if you want to run a report of your own.

You get a basic data screen, to which you can drag the fields you want and set filter criteria in a series of spreadsheet-like cells - for example where the golf handicap field is below 15, or a greater than value on the income field in the companion PerTax tax program if you were looking to identify the higher earners among your clients. It was also good to see a Mailmerge option on the menu, even if in this case I didn't run one.

Client communications are tracked via a Notes module, one of six data tabs accessed from the basic Client details view. This approach is common to applications such as Keytime's DRIVE and CCH ProSystem, but was nicely implemented here so that I could assign a call to a colleague, and it would then show up on their task list. There was a space to enter notes from the conversation and a button to generate a timesheet entry for the task.

MYOB's product team told me about some of the things that will soon be possible - for example bi-directional links with Outlook so that your email system can synchronise with VPM, and computer telephony integration to initiate calls (and record times) from within the software. But frankly, there was already plenty enough to take in from VPM as it was.

That's the trouble with mature, top-end practice management tools like VPM. They throw so many features at you that it can be hard to make full use of what's there. What impressed me about this program, however, was the balance struck between navigation and functionality. Right from the opening portal views, VPM provided a very smooth ride into some very powerful functional modules.

Sage has been working hard to deliver the kind of integration VPM offers, but falls short on functionality. And while CCH ProSystem matches VPM in many areas, some of its sophisticated tools are less accessible to ordinary users. Relate's DRIVE is a good value alternative to both VPM and ProSystem, but doesn't yet offer the internal links with tax and accounts preparation modules that they do. If you line VPM up alongside the knowledge and document management capabilities of its sister system, Singleview, MYOB has got a lot to offer, particularly if you're looking to tool up a 4-5+ partner firm for the modern era.

I really enjoyed the time I spent with VPM. But then we get to the question of cost, which continues to haunt all of the offerings in this market. The MYOB team was a little coy about giving me precise figures for system that could support, say, five partners with 10 staff.

The entry-price quoted by MYOB for VPM is £800, but to really make your firm sing, everyone is going to have to use it. I spotted five or six areas where VPM would make some big impacts on internal efficiency and operating costs. But faced with the need to invest up to five figures for an integrated system, many partners currently prefer to hold on to the cash and stick with the spreadsheets and paper systems they're comfortable with.

MYOB's sensitivity on price - which it shares with the likes of IRIS, Sage and CCH - highlights a tricky problem for practice software developers. Just as they get close to delivering truly integrated practice computing, young upstarts are threatening to undercut them with much cheaper, though less sophisticated web-hosted solutions. Practice software may move on so quickly that even excellent applications like VPM could be denied the room to thrive.

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