The point of reviewing all of the above workflow components is to help articulate how workflow software can assist you in dealing with the myriad of information that is a critical part of any professional tax and accounting workflow.
THE ROLE OF WORKFLOW SOFTWARE
At this point, you might be asking yourself, “So how does workflow software help me address all of the aspects of an engagement as described above?”
First, it is important to understand that the workflow automation software market is still at the embryonic stage of its evolution, in my opinion. There are, however, some very viable solutions today that are relatively mature in their individual development cycle. But even those applications can be improved upon, and we need more of them in the marketplace.
The biggest challenge I see in the workflow software market today is that the products are all over the map in terms of the scope of features offered and their interaction with other key applications such as tax and audit software, document management systems, portals and practice management software. In my opinion, the optimal de-sign of workflow software would be to embed it within the practice management system and directly integrate it with the document management system. I believe that over the course of time this is the path it will evolve down, at least for some of the vendors.
A CLOSER LOOK
So let’s take a quick tour of how a comprehensive workflow application can help to automate each of the workflow ingredients previously listed.
Documents & Files – At the core of every engagement are the paper documents and electronic files. The workflow software should provide a direct link to all of the electronic files related to the engagement, wheth- er they are in a document management system or simply organized in Windows directories. To the extent you still have paper documents, a dynamic log of where those documents are located would be helpful so that you can account for them. With so many files in your systems today, the ability to automatically link to the engagement files is a key value driver.
Due Dates – The quality of your service is often measured in your ability to get things done on time (i.e., file the tax return, deliver the audit report, etc.). In addition, key milestones line the way towards completion of an engagement. The workflow soft-ware can help you establish those target dates and keep your team informed through e-mail notifications and other electronic alerts of important deadlines. An in-valuable management tool is the ability to aggregate all of these due dates for all of your engagements so that you can quickly assess your firm’s work in process, your ability to get things done on time and optimize the allocation of your personnel re-sources.
Deliverables – It is important that the deliverables that re-sult from every engagement be tracked and ultimately become part of the engagement file. The workflow software can provide links to the deliverables (i.e., audit reports, tax returns, financial plans, etc.). That’s the beauty of digital files; everything in one virtual folder and instantly accessible by multiple people simultaneously.
Procedures – One of the most important functions of the workflow software is the ability to define and document the tasks that need to be completed, assign responsibility for them and facilitate the electronic routing of the virtual engagement file to the “next in line.” This is the digital equivalent of the paper workpaper file management sys- tem I discussed in the introduction. This also provides an invaluable management tool that can generate a report on every engagement in the firm, who it’s currently assigned to and where it is scheduled to go next. No more e-mail or v-mail tag trying to find out where the engagement is and when it is expected to move to the next step in the process.
Communication – There are all sorts of communications that take place in every engagement. The workflow software should serve as a repository for all of the various notes related to the engagement: client meeting notes, engagement constraints, review notes, procedural instructions, client idiosyncrasies, etc. This is one of the biggest challenges in going paperless: “How do we keep track of all of our engagement notes in a paperless workflow?”
Collaboration – As a profession, we have a long way to progress in our ability to collaborate on engagements electronically. Certainly, the workflow software can help us get there by providing functionality that lets the entire engagement team access, review and edit the engagement data simultaneously online. Many technologies are available today to help us do this, but the more they are integrated directly into the workflow software the more effective they will be.
Fees & Expenses – While tracking fees and expenses does not necessarily have to be an integrated component of the workflow software, it makes for a more complete solution if we can track our actual time and expenses against budgeted amounts for the engagement. If we have that information embed- ded in the virtual engagement binder, it will encourage us to stay more focused on how we are progressing against plan and take corrective action sooner rather than later.