A Top Technology Initiative Article -- From the November 2012 Issue.
Workflow remains one of the biggest incremental opportunities in most firms to improve realization. Using the right workflow tools can make a paperless implementation work so much better.
Implementing workflow will not solve operational issues in your firm without management involvement and attention. However, when workflow is implemented correctly, the technology helps things happen in your firm that didn’t seem possible.
What is workflow and how does it change our document management implementation? Workflow is the set of processes we use to manage a series of steps to accomplish a project. Many of our firms keep a documented series of steps and review these after busy season, major projects or when there has been a failure by the firm using the system.
People with more experience tend to think about or review the steps less because they “know” them. The documentation and steps are often handed to new firm members to teach them “what we do”.
However, the documentation is often incomplete, out of date, too detailed or too complex to be a practical guide for day to day work. Plus handling the exceptions of the workflow is frequently hard to recognize and document.
To overcome this problem we often react by saying things like: “just do what is best”. Workflow should be our guide on the best way to accomplish a series of tasks. Workflow improves document management by providing a logical and controlled sequence of processing for documents.
What have we done historically? Most firms have used one of a few methods: logs of work checked in and out, cover sheets, piles of work moved from place to place, envelopes or expanding folders on shelves or in file cabinets, and often all of this was capped off with experience and observation trying to avoid any dropped balls.
As our firm converted more of our work from paper to paperless the “markers” of paper disappeared. We couldn’t see the piles of paper on the floor or on shelves, and it became hard for us to know when a particular firm member was assigned too much work and another one too little until we discovered work not completed in a timely fashion or reviewed time sheets well after the fact.
Most significant, many professionals do not want to be told when or how something should be done. They want to do it their way, not necessarily a consistent way or using a method the firm has decided is the best or the easiest.
What has to happen with our firm culture? All partners have to buy into using workflow for the methodology and products to work best. This is truer in workflow than almost any other technology or service implemented in the firm.
The idea behind workflow is to have a consistent methodology to complete a project, set reasonable estimates of the time required to complete each step, assign this task to any team member with adequate skills, easily monitor progress and mark completion and move the project to the next step until all tasks are completed.
If any firm member chooses not to do their part the same as everyone else, trust in each other and the system quickly breaks down. When partners do the process however they like, acting like independent cats, it is very hard to herd the cats together if you are a senior, manager, or staff accountant. AND team members are fearful of not doing what someone in the firm with greater authority wants done.
Team members start playing the game of how does this partner want the work done versus how does that partner want the work done. Partner agreement on the fundamental workflow is necessary to be successful.
What tools are available? For CPA firms, we have workflow tools available from several publishers including: Office Tools Professional, Doc.It, XCM, Thomson FirmFlow, CCH Workstream, OpenText (formerly Metastorm) and Anydoc. Most of these products have been in the market for over five years and some for more than ten.