Paperless Project Article

April 19, 2010

Project Part 1: Problem Identification

Robert Jones, CPA is a small accounting firm in Orlando, Florida. At this time, all the files are paper files. There is an off-site storage space and a file room in the office, both of which are filled to capacity. A previous employee is now contracted by the firm and works from her home in Houghton, MI. In order to complete the work, most of the data has to be mailed and/or faxed back and forth. Only some of the information is transferred electronically. “Going paperless” could possibly solve both of these problems. Obviously, if the data were electronic, they would require a lot less space. Also, if all data coming in and going out were electronic, it would save time and money in the transfer between Orlando and Houghton. In addition to saving time and money transferring files, there is also the time it takes to manually file papers, organize the files, and look for files that are in the wrong place. Would it be worthwhile for Robert Jones, CPA, P.A. to become a paperless office? If so, how would the firm go about converting?

Project Part 2: Fact Finding

In a telephone interview with Robert Jones President of Robert Jones, CPA, P.A., on September 28, 2007, we were able to find out exactly what the filing situation is at his firm and what resources he has available to make it more efficient. Mr. Jones was able to explain his only concern with converting to a paperless office. He also gave us his timing and budget constraints. We were also able to determine what hardware he already has in place. This primary source is extremely relevant; it is needed to define the parameters of the entire project.

An article written by Amir Morani (2006) presents a real experience of a CPA who used the paperless technology to improve the performance and efficiency of his business. One of the benefits mentioned by the author includes using a client-server network with a T1 internet connection on his office system from over 10,000 miles away without any problems. In addition to talking about the benefits of having a paperless office, he also discusses that is isn’t a painful experience getting there. This source is a primary source since the author is talking about his personal experience and his opinions on the subject. This source is relevant to the project because it gave a very good example of a paperless CPA office being a success.

Another CPA who talks about his paperless conversion experience is Tom Davis. He gives some facts, but mostly opinions regarding the process. The useful information provided is primarily the steps to take along with some of the problems that may be encountered. This primary source is relevant because he not only talks about the benefits, but also is very realistic in warning about the problems that may arise, reducing the number of surprises once implementation begins.

The CPA Technology Advisor is the online version of a technology magazine for CPA firms and offices. They give reviews and other tips and tricks for CPA professionals on a variety of topics. Useful information gathered includes a review of different software used for document management and other aspects of the software needed to go to a paperless office. This source is a combination of opinions and facts. Some of the information is primary and some is secondary. This source is relevant to our problem because it gives a basis to judge the software options we have for CPAs.


Project Part 3: Solution Criteria and Limitations, Solution Suggestions

In a telephone interview with Robert Jones on September 28, 2007, we were able to determine exactly what resources the firm has available to use to improve the filing situation. Some information is the personal knowledge of team member Anita Brill, since she worked in the firm for six years. Currently, paper files are located in several different locations. There are current files in a file room consisting of thirty-six file drawers, stacks of general ledgers in an extra office, and an offsite storage unit housing older files that are not accessed frequently. All of these locations are filled to capacity. In order to continue using the paper filing method, the space of four to six lateral file drawers is needed for the next year. Since public accounting is seasonal, the best time of year to undertake a major project, such as converting to a paperless office, is between October 15th and January 15th. So, the solution must take less than three months to fully implement. Mr. Jones has two employees that would be able to spend some time on the project. His current computer hardware set up is a computer with three hard drives with a RAID backup system in place. This computer is Mr. Jones’s computer as well as the firm’s server. Each of the employees has a computer that is networked to the server. He is also currently leasing a high-end copier that is network ready. This copier can be connected to the network using an existing, unused, ethernet connection. The copier has high speed scanning capabilities. Mr. Jones’s budget for this project is $3,000. He sounds like he is willing and ready to make the leap into a new age of technology.

The first option, but definitely not the best, would be to do nothing. The firm would still have the problem of where to go with all of the new files. This option would solve nothing.

Along those same lines, there is the idea that Mr. Jones could just retire. If he stops working, he stops creating files which he has no room to store.

A step above doing nothing would be for the firm to rent another storage unit. Enough files could be shifted out of the file room into a new storage unit to make room for the files coming in for the next tax year.

One of the solutions is to do a full scan of all the documents in the office, along with all the documents in the off-site storage, as well as all new incoming documents. This solution would free up a lot of space. If all the present documents were scanned into the computer, the original documents could be shredded or taken off-site.

Since a full scan of all the documents may take longer than his two employees have the time for, Mr. Jones could outsource the scanning of all the existing records. Although costing more, he would still have a completely digital filing system.

Another solution proposed involves only scanning new documents. This solution leaves all of the current documents being stored on and off-site the way they are, while scanning all those that are incoming. This solution would alleviate the problem of the high cost of scanning all the existing documents; while still implementing the efficiency of digital filing.

A different option would be to scan all the off-site documents, as they cause more inefficiency and cost than the current on-site storage. Also, all the new incoming documents are filed efficiently through digital scans and computer filing.

A “hybrid” solution was suggested. The need for a hard copy may still be desired and stored in the current system, but scanned digitally for ease of retrieval. This would be applied to all incoming documents in order to cut down time tracking down papers while still having the hard copies.

Yet another solution is to scan all of the “miscellaneous” papers in addition to the new incoming documents. This solution was based on Anita’s personal knowledge of random papers stacked and floating around the office. If all these documents were scanned, there would be no worries as to where the documents were; they could easily be accessed on the computer.

The firm could manually manage documents and organization electronically. The CPA office staff does all the software management by themselves, using folders and sub folders on a computer. The person would scan a document into a computer and then place it within a designated folder on the server machine. How the folders would be organized, would be to fit the company’s needs.

The firm could implement the software package, ArkWorks (2007). ArkWorks is purely a document management package. It is made by the same company that makes the tax program he uses (TaxWorks). ArkWorks fully integrates with TaxWorks, but also works easily with other programs.

Another package the firm could use is Office Tools Pro (CPA Technology Advisor, 2007). This is a software package provided by North 40 Systems, and designed for small CPA firms of 40 employees or less. The software package would have all the document management software needed, plus all the software for running and maintaining the office. Also included is training and upgrades for the first year, with all other years at a set rate.

CaseWare International Inc. offers CaseWare Time and Today 2007 (CPA Technology Advisor, 2007), a software package for midsize to smaller firms. This is actually two different software tools packaged together to provide a complete solution. Like Office Tools Pro they offer all the software and tools needed to manage documents and run the CPA office.

To come up with these solution suggestions, The Paperless Pros used a combination of “the borrow file,” brainstorming, and also expanding current alternatives using subdivision. One creative thinking technique we used was the borrow file. We borrowed ideas from the CPA Technology Advisor website. We got ideas on which software packages to use from their reviews and personal experience. This gave us the ideas of using Office Tools Pro and CaseWare Time and Today 2007. We also brainstormed, which produced ideas such as retiring and outsourcing the document scanning. Ideas produced by expanding the current alternatives using subdivision were the different approaches to scanning the documents. We first came up with scanning all documents, which led us to all the partial document strategies.

Although we did not seem to have much trouble, there were a few minor conceptual blocks. One of the problems we encountered was vertical thinking, or looking at the problem in a specific format. Initially, it was thought that the problem is a need or demand for digital or paperless records and filing. After discussing the problem and getting access to more information, however, it was noted that the problem is much more general and can be described simply as filing inefficiency. Once this was determined, a lot more feasible solutions and assumptions could be made in order to better approach the problem. We were able to get past this by storytelling. With Anita’s personal knowledge, she was able to talk about different situations in the firm so that everyone else could understand the problems and come up with more ideas.

Another conceptual block that our team has experienced thus far is an artificial constraint. We overcame this constraint by trying to “think outside the box.” We also tried to think of some ideas that were “out there”, because we knew that that would widen our thoughts to make us think of some ideas outside of the different versions of one idea we had been coming up with. We put our own boundaries on the solutions that we were coming up with outside of the boundaries that the client had given us. We had been expecting cost constraints and personnel constraints different than what was specified, and we were, at times, using our self imposed boundaries instead of the clients given boundaries. We also tried to think about some different ideas we could use, which seemed kind of wild at the time, but eventually helped us to condense our ideas into a reasonable one that really did work.

Another instance where we had some difficulties was populating the solution list. We encountered this when we noticed a large amount of similar solutions and had trouble deviating from them. This was largely due to the fact that our team relied on more rational and linear brainstorming for a majority of the solutions. This actually hindered the variety of possible solutions that were at our disposal and even if a solution that is more right brained isn’t used it can help to develop other options. Eventually we noted this and came up with some more solutions that had a much larger variance.

Project Part 4: Solution Evaluation and Selection

No additional requirements were added to Mr. Jones’s requirements. We felt that his were thorough enough. The absolute requirements are as follows:

  • Does it save space?
  • Can it be completed prior to January 15, 2008?
  • Will it take more than two employees to complete it?
  • Is the total cost less than $3,000?

These requirements ruled out doing nothing, retiring, renting another storage unit, scanning all the documents, outsourcing the scanning of all the existing records, and the hybrid method, which was scanning and keeping hardcopies. You can see a breakdown of the absolute requirement selection process on appendix A.

There are two major decisions that need to be made with regards to approaching a paperless office. The first decision is which documents to scan and which to keep in the current filing system. Scanning all the documents was ruled out due to time and money. That left us with two options: scan the new incoming files and along with the off-site storage; and only scanning the income files.

Scanning only the new incoming files would solve the space issue, without taking a lot of time and energy up front. All the current files would remain as they are, and the new files would be electronic. We determined that scanning the thousands of files would be way too time consuming. The downside to this is that employees would still have to access these files the old fashioned way. They still may run into the problem of not being able to locate documents.

The other option is to scan all the offsite storage files along with the new incoming files. This would give them the benefit of having their least accessible files on the server. This would save the time it takes to drive to storage, find the file, and hope it has what they are looking for. All the current files would still be in the file room in the office, since those are easier to access. This option would take a quite a bit more time initially. The question that needs to be asked is this: which will take more time in the long run, scanning all the documents now, or driving to storage to get a file once a month at the most? The answer to this is probably scanning all the documents will take more time. This means that this may not be the most cost efficient option.

The second major decision to be made is how to organize the data once it is scanned. We narrowed this down to four options, including manually organizing the data using the file system built into Windows; or using one of the following three software packages: Office Tools Pro, CaseWare, or ArkWorks.

The basis of the incoming paper manual scan is that the inflexibility of automated systems can be undesirable and a bit more than is needed for the small firm environment. The first concept behind the manual scan is that a protocol should be set up so that once paper or digital information is received it can be processed, stored, and be readily accessible to workers. This involves accessibility to current and possibly additional hardware as well as setting up a yearly, quarterly, and client based file system structure. Also, proper direction or instruction may be needed in order to allow for the proper use of the methods to be laid out in order to maintain consistent digital information as well as file system structure. The benefits of this type of solution implementation are minimized monetary startup costs, flexibility, relative ease of use, minimalist requirements (KISS), very high level of data accessibility, very easy data transfer, and low change in current working operations. The downside of this solution would be that it may require extra user input time, no outside support system, future turnover due to lack of updating, and it doesn’t improve upon existing storage inefficiencies.
One solution that we have selected is a type of software called Office Tools Pro. Office Tools Pro (OTP) is accounting specific software that is easy to use and has the ability to replace multiple programs with just one program that does everything. OTP is software designed and built for the small business, which is what our client is. OTP is also one of the fastest growing providers in the accounting field with regards to accountancy. The reason we select Office Tools Pro is because it is truly designed for the small business and it is easy to use for people who have not been working with software for a long time. OTP is also designed to use with minimum hardware requirements and minimum operating systems. OTP can run on only 128mb of ram and only takes up 60mb of disk space; however, the printer that is being used with the software will have to have at least 4mb or ram. OTP can function on a general operating system; it can work on Windows 2000, XP or Vista. The cost of OTP varies depending on the type of software you get for the business, and how many users will be accessing the data. For a one user package the price varies from $250 to $550, and each additional user is an additional $175. Office Tools Pro also offers many other services of which can be accessed by paying the yearly renewal fee. In the end, we selected OTP for the final group because it has a variety of user options, and it is not very complicated to use.

CaseWare International Inc. provides CaseWare Time and Today 2007 as an option for paperless offices; this software package is designed for midsize to smaller firms. This is actually two different software tools, Time 2007 and Today 2007, packaged together to provide a complete solution. With this bundle they offer all the necessary tools required to run a paperless office. The software focuses on positive firm and end-user experiences. One way it does this is that it has a system built in that allows for a worker to edit a file while away form the office. With support for Microsoft Outlook, it makes it easy to import all your business contacts into the database. There is a built in PDF generator that helps to provide easy document management, so that you can easily email them to clients. CaseWare is focused to provide a stable product, to help ensure product longevity and quality support through user guides and online tips. Downsides to this solution is that it require training to get all the workers familiar with the software, which could translate into extensive downtime. Also the software does not fully support the current software system used by the office, so integration of the new software will be harder. Another potential bad spot is that the software is not a new edition, rather only an upgrade of the 2006 edition, this could provide for longer down time to get the system up to one hundred percent.

ArkWorks is a program designed by the same company that makes TaxWorks, the software that the firm uses to prepare tax returns. This software is purely a document management system, costing $995. This price is a one time fee, no annual renewal costs. There is the option to buy an upgrade from year to year, but it is not required to continue using the product. The firm already has firm management software, so there would not be redundancy like there would with the other software suggestions. ArkWorks integrates seamlessly with TaxWorks as well as most other common software packages (Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, etc.). The only drawback would be the time involved to train the employees to use the software.

Our weighting table (Appendix B) consists of seven solution suggestions and five secondary requirements. We separated the seven solution suggestions into two portions. The first portion included only scan the new documents, scan the off-site and new documents, and scan all misc documents. The second portion included manually scan and organize, ArkWorks, Office Tools Pro, and CaseWare.

We used five secondary requirements to rate each of the solution suggestions. The lowest rated requirement is recurring annual expense. We felt that of all the requirements, this was the least important. The next is minimum upkeep; we didn’t feel that this was much more important than the recurring annual expense, and ranked it as a two. The third is minimum time, as it is much more important than the first two. They only have two employees during the normal office hours available to work on the conversion. All team members agreed the most important requirements are minimum startup cost and ease of use, and we rated them equally with a six. Even though there is a budget of $3,000, we want to find a solution that does not eat up his entire budget. Also, the solution must easy for everyone to use, so they do not need a lot of time to be trained.

The outcome of the weighting table was that scanning only new documents and using ArkWorks to organize these documents are the best selections.

Final results are as follows:

  • Only scan new documents: 79
  • Scan all miscellaneous papers: 63
  • Scan off-site and new documents: 56
  • Office Tools Pro: 91
  • ArkWorks: 87
  • CaseWare: 71
  • Manually scan and organize: 57

The second selection technique we used was the nominal group technique. We broke down our selection process into two groups. The first group was how to handle scanning of the paperwork and the second group was how to organize the information scanned digitally. We went with the highest score winning, so for the first group with three options a person’s first choice gets three points, second gets two and third gets one. During the voting process we all took turns ranking the options and then we had Anita mark in a table each persons picks. Once everyone had voted we tallied the votes and determined the winners. The option that won in the first group was to scan only new documents coming into the office.

Ultimately, our team felt that the weighting table was the best technique for solution evaluation for several reasons. Firstly, it seemed to allow for a much better representation of all the elements needed to have a truly successful solution whereas the Nominal Group Technique didn’t address all of these elements on an individual basis. Also, the weighting and evaluation of each of the needed elements were sought out through a consensus rather than individual bias, thus giving a better representation of the actual impact upon the desired outcome. Also, the weighting table method eliminates the weight on individual preference by examining all aspects of a proposed solution instead of what a member would rather implement. This is extremely useful as often determining a software package for implementation can be based a lot upon simple personal preference rather than the whole impact that each software package has upon the desired outcome. Overall, because of the allowance for group discussion upon weighting and evaluating the different solutions we felt that the weighting table technique presented a far more accurate representation of each of the solutions effects upon the desired outcomes.

The winning suggestion seems to be (unanimously) scanning only new documents and organizing them. This will solve the firm’s problem of not having any additional space for files. Eventually, all the old documents will be able to be shredded and he can stop utilizing the off-site storage. In the mean time, he will have a more efficient filing system for the files he is currently working on (beginning in January of 2008). This is also the most cost effective solution. Since none of the existing files are being scanned, there is virtually no time involved in beginning the process. Overall, these suggestions make up the best option for Robert Jones, CPA to go paperless.

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