By Ray Desjardins
Illustration: Blair Kelly
Document management need not be just for the experts — there is a system for the rest of us
It’s getting difficult to attend a professional development seminar in accounting these days without encountering one or more sessions on the paperless office. While most practitioners have gone at least part way down the paperless road, many are having difficulty moving beyond the first tentative steps.
Many have experience with scanners: they are mainly used to scan documents, which are then e-mailed to clients or colleagues. When you think about it, all that’s been done is that fax machines (which involved only one step — faxing) have been replaced with a three-step process (scan, attach to e-mail and send). Once in a while, a document is scanned, saved to a PDF file and then lost because no one remembers where it is stored.
Most accounting and tax software prints a report or a return to a PDF file. Word processing files and spreadsheets can either be saved in their native file formats or exported/printed into a PDF file. Again, we have to decide where to store those files so they can be accessed easily.
Most of us have the hardware, software and experience to save the majority of documents in electronic format, whether those documents are created or converted from paper-based forms. The challenge comes in designing a logical, intuitive and consistent storage mechanism for those electronic forms. Not only do they need to be accessed quickly, but the storage mechanism must ensure they are safely stored, properly archived and backed up on a timely basis. Accountants have always feared disasters such as fires or floods that would destroy their paper files — the only record of their labour. They are even more uneasy when work is stored in transient electrons, which are susceptible to erasure, corruption or disappearance.
Elegant document management solutions such as Doc. It and CCH Document have been developed for firms that have the volume and size necessary to amortize their significant up-front and installation costs — both in terms of dollars and hours. For those who are unable or unwilling to purchase a ready-made solution, there are a number of ways to manage electronic documents effectively.
One system available to anyone who uses a Windows operating system is the ubiquitous Windows Explorer. For a one-person office manned by someone experienced with Windows products, the directory and subdirectory (now called folders) structure of Windows Explorer offers a logical layout for document management. Unfortunately, the flexibility inherent in Windows Explorer can cause a range of problems when the system is accessed by less-knowledgeable people. Users need to understand how the system is managed in order to know where and in what format to store documents. It is difficult to design fail-safe and automatic procedures to ensure that documents are not lost or accidentally deleted.
Many small and medium-sized accounting firms use a document management system using CaseWare (CW). The main user interface in CW is called the Document Manager, which is an excellent backbone upon which to design a simple document management system.
Planning your document management structure
One issue in designing a document management system is planning how to lay out directories and how and where to store files so they can be easily retrieved. If using CW, a structure is in place to store client files, so why not use the same tool for all document management? Since staff may be familiar with CW, there is little learning curve involved with expanding it into a full-blown document management system. In fact, staff often drives the conversion and will suggest new ways to use CW to further reduce reliance on paper and speed up the transfer of files and documents to the document manager.
There are a number of ways to deal with file continuity using this sort of system. With documents that will be referenced on an ongoing basis, subfolders can be set up on the CW document manager by year and type. The advantage is that the CW file is totally self-contained, and it can be accessed easily by staff working outside the office. By using the checkout procedures in CW, staff can transfer the file to a laptop. Alternatively, if file size is an issue, the documents can be stored elsewhere and referenced with a link provided on the document manager in CW. (The downside of storing the document elsewhere is the CW file is no longer self-contained. This makes working remotely more challenging as the user will have to find a way to connect to the office network remotely to access those documents.)
Implementing the CW document management system
CW comes with the capability to scan documents directly into its document manager. It’s just a matter of right clicking anywhere on the document manager and selecting new\scan. It uses a standard PDF format and even contains its own PDF reader, which is faster than Adobe when opening a PDF file in CW. It takes only seconds to scan in the file, and the only decision left is what to call it.
Files that don’t have to be scanned (such as tax files, spreadsheets, word processing and PDFs created from accounting programs) can be linked with a few keystrokes and become accessible from the document manager by a double click. They can be linked from any location on the network; ideally, they should be saved into the CW file. For example, some may save all tax files as PDF files into the clients’ CW files when preparing their tax returns. Then, when preparing the year-end file in CW, they can simply link to the PDF stored in the CW file.
The facility exists in CW to create Word and Excel spreadsheets directly from within CW. Some firms have all their correspondence created in Word from within CW so it can be automatically placed on the document manager at the same time as the correspondence is created.
If you choose to store all documents in the CW file, backup and archiving is simplified. Once the CW file has been compressed, a relatively small file containing all the relevant documents for the client can be backed up. Since the number of files to back up is reduced, the process itself is simplified, and the practitioner can make as many backups to as many locations as needed. CW files can be backed up daily to a local and a remote external drive, archived to an external drive monthly, and archived to DVD media quarterly. All backups to external drives can be done using a simple Xcopy backup in simple batch file, which is easily scheduled on the server using the scheduled task program. Files can be copied rather than using a more traditional backup format so recent files can be easily called up in the event that today’s CW file is corrupted or deleted while working in it.
Reasonably well-equipped offices already have most of the hardware required to operate an electronic document management system. You will need at least one high-volume scanner for scanning multiple documents such as clients’ tax slips. The cost will depend on anticipated volume, but expect to spend between $1,000 and $2,500. If you don’t plan to scan existing documents and the primary use is to scan tax slips, then maybe all you need is something like the Kodak i1220, about $1,100.
Each workstation can be equipped with an all-in-one printer/copier/scanner, about $200. Some firms use one or more network scanners, but many employees like having a unit at their desk and being able to scan the documents as they work on files as opposed to batching them. Test the scanner to ensure it will automatically scan into CW. The mentioned Kodak scanner, for example, is not compatible with versions of CW prior to CW2009.
Workstations can have dual monitors. Even without a document management system, a productive enhancement in any office is providing employees with multiple monitors. There are low-priced dual-VGA display adapters, which were less than $50 each but are now difficult to find. An economical alternative is a USB multiple monitor attachment. USB devices have the ad-vantage of being easily moved from one computer to another and can be attached without opening the computer case.
Notes of caution
When planning the implementation of a document management system, impress on users that having a scanner doesn’t mean they have to scan everything. If you don’t need to keep a document in a paper file, you don’t need to keep it in an electronic file. Scanning everything can be an amazing time waster.
Scanner drivers offer the option of various resolution levels. Unless you want to create gigantic files that are time consuming to compress and expand, scan documents in black and white. For the few that do not scan properly in black and white, use gray scale, not the millions of colours’ mode.
Ready to take the leap?
If you are using CW, there is little transition involved if you want to use it as a document manager. Plan the structure carefully and involve all staff early in the process.
Ray Desjardins, CA•IT, is a sole practitioner with Desjardins & Co. and vice-president of New Paradigm Information Consultants Ltd.
Technical editor: Yves Godbout, CA•IT, CA•CISA, Director of IT Services, Office of the Auditor General of Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org