From the June 2010 Issue
When I start to think about where this concept of workflow software originates, it reminds me of the debate between creationism and evolution theory: When and where did it all start? Unlike DOS, Windows, iPhones, etc., for which we can pretty easily trace the roots of their origins, the source of workflow software is much more difficult to trace. I challenge you to identify the original source of workflow software. It’s like trying to discover the origin of websites and portals. Why is this point important? I guess only because I found it more difficult to comprehend the concept of workflow software without knowing how it originally evolved over its relatively short history. Fortunately, there is a sufficient number of alternative workflow solutions available today to help you develop an understanding of its core purpose and functionality.
There is no single definition of what constitutes workflow software. On one hand, it could simply be an Excel spreadsheet that has a routing list that gets checked off as the engagement moves from one step in the process to the next. At the other end of the spectrum, workflow software has the potential to route an electronic document automatically by interpreting the contents of the document and perhaps even take information from the document and transfer it. Think about the scan and populate software for 1040 tax products that takes data on scanned W-2 forms and transfers it directly to the tax software “hands-free.” The automatic routing process even has the potential to determine who to route the document to based on its contents.
The bottom line on defining workflow software is this: It’s any functionality that automates the flow of information based on some level of pre-defined rules. A classic example of basic workflow software is the “rules” feature in MS Outlook that lets you move e-mails from your inbox to a specific folder automatically, based upon pre-defined rules that you establish. For example, move any incoming e-mails sent from CPATechAdvisor.com into the CPATA e-mail folder.
So let’s talk about what workflow for an accounting and tax practice is all about. The current generation of workflow software originated primarily as a by-product of the evolution of document management software. As firms began the journey to a paperless practice model by converting all documents into digital format, it quickly became apparent that we needed an electronic tool to replace our Red Rope or Redweld workpaper folders. These typically had a paper routing sheeting attached to them with a rubber band. After all, if we’re going paperless we don’t need workpaper folders anymore, right?
The issue is that these folders served two key functions. One was to be the container for the engagement workpapers, which, by the way, is the role of the DMS now. The other function was to serve as a tangible tool for organizing your workload and moving engagements throughout the office as the engagement progressed. It is this latter function and all that it encompasses that is the primary force driving the evolution of workflow software.