Practice Management Tech Trends

Digital Documents, Doc?

Written by Randy Johnston

Paperless document strategies are more of a culture than a strategy. You can put all of the technology in place,Digital Documents but if you still “have to have” paper, you may not wind up as paperless as you planned. What does it take to really do digital documents right? If you are looking at a transaction without the supporting documentation or “paperwork,” how can you tell what’s going on?

If you simply store documents in a file folder structure, even with smart naming conventions, you may not be as paperless as you think. If you have different document storage systems, including file cabinets, a Document Management System (DMS), a portal, some off-site storage, and a backup in the cloud, you may not be as paperless as you think. If you recall the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, I’m reminded of Bugs’ phrase, while munching a carrot: “Ehh, What’s up, Doc?”

Randy Johnston is a top-rated technology speaker. At Accountex 2016, Randy will be covering hosting, both public and private, in the session, Risks and Rewards of Hosted, On-Premise, and Hybrid Solutions.

What Needs Are You Trying to Satisfy?

First, there is no one right way to implement any technology. It’s preferable to align your business strategy and tactics with your technology strategy and tactics, which should lead to your paperless and accounting tactics. However, if someone says, “This is the one (or only) way,” don’t buy it. There are many right ways to implement paperless, but the best digital documents strategy looks at your business or your client’s business holistically. What are the needs that you are trying to satisfy?

What Are Your Pain Points?

Normally, there are several pain points related to paperless digital document management. Let’s see if some of Digital Documentsthese ring true with you:

  1. Quick retrieval of any document.
  2. Can’t find critical documents when they are needed.
  3. Documents that serve as records of evidentiary value, such as an invoice to prove that software was purchased or that a hardware product has a lifetime warranty that can be honored and repaired or replaced can be readily retrieved.
  4. Documents related to a single engagement or project can be handled conveniently as a group.
  5. Appropriate security measures can be applied to allow or prevent access to records. Examples here could be payroll or personnel records, documents needed for litigation, or other records of a permanent nature.
  6. Supporting documentation including purchase orders, engagement letters, executed statement of work, contracts, or other legally binding documentation that may become records of a permanent nature are readily accessible.
  7. Marketing and promotional material that may include descriptions of products or services, programs and events, and other client-facing materials are readily available and versions are controlled.
  8. Internal documents that may contain proprietary or confidential data, including formulas, product specifications, and competitive analysis. These documents typically are for internal use only and need to be controlled so they do not fall into competitors’ or customers’ hands.
  9. Financial and operational reporting, much of which is produced on a recurring basis.
  10. Legal and governmental documentation that could include tax returns, lawsuits, articles of incorporation, minutes, audits, bank loans, and other documentation critical to business operations.

Note that we could have named more transactional items like bank statements, expenses, invoices, quotes, orders, and similar business documentation or documents that describe the processes of a business—or, in a word, documentation.

Recent Developments in Paperless Systems

While paperless systems have been around for 20+ years in small business, developers have continued to evolve the capabilities and thinking behind the systems. Recent developments include the use of cell phone cameras to capture images, and performing optical character recognition (OCR) on the images and storing these images with the transaction, such as is frequently done in expense tracking products like Concur, Expensify, Nexonia, Tallie, Zoho Expense, and a host of other examples.

Another development is the use of portals to retrieve and deliver documents. Links can be sent to clients or customers requesting or delivering information. This eliminates sending documents of any size via email. Examples of portals and information gathering tools include: FileThis, Hubdoc, ShareFile, SmartVault, Doc.IT Portal, Office Tools Professional, AccountantsWorld Cloud Cabinet, and LeapFile.

Accounting products have also definitely gotten into the paperless digital document act lately, with Accounting Power, QuickBooks Online, Xero, and Zoho—as well as with mid-market products like Financial Force, Intacct, and NetSuite that add a feature to attach documents at the transaction level. And, of course, QuickBooks Desktop was extended with a variety of products that wrapped this popular small business solution with some level of document control. Examples here include popular choices such as:, SmartVault, SourceLink, and the fairly commonly used Cabinet (was NG), DocuXplorer, e2B, FormCliq, PaperSave, QBGarage, SpringAhead, and many more.

From Simple to Sophisticated

The traditional model of storing documents is still commonly used, as it should be. If you consider simple toDigital Documents complex ways to store documents, you wind up with the “levels” of paperless systems. You can Do-It-Yourself (DIY) by creating folders and using smart naming at the operating system level on your Windows, MacOS, or Linux computer. You can step up your game with Document Storage Solutions, Document Management Systems, and Enterprise Content Management systems.

What’s the next step up from DIY? You can choose a little more sophistication with simple file cabinet systems. These applications usually assist with file and folder naming, integration to applications, and a few other productivity benefits. Sometimes these file cabinet systems are called Document Storage Solutions (DSS). DSS typically have a more focused set of features and functions, which are often targeted to a specific niche such as direct integration with a particular tax prep package, integration with QuickBooks, or providing a secure file sharing solution. These applications are generally designed to index data in a single (or small number) of ways, and may have a fixed organizational hierarchy.

Although a few of these products have been named earlier in other contexts, the following products are examples of DSS:

The next level of sophistication in paperless systems is Document Management Systems (DMS). DMS are designed as comprehensive business solutions for automating the capture, storage and dissemination of all electronic documents and files in an organization. DMS applications typically, but not always, have the ability to connect with products from multiple vendors and multiple index fields so that a single document can be simultaneously filed more than one way. The application of automatic naming, records retention, and other features are included and automated.

Examples of products in this category include:

Finally, the highest level of system is known as Enterprise Content Management (ECM). ECM is a formalized means of organizing and storing an organization’s documents, and other content, that relate to the organization’s processes. The term encompasses strategies, methods, and tools used throughout the lifecycle of the content.

ECM systems perform everything that a DSS or DMS can do, plus other features like scheduled publishing of content, much like a web-site content editor such as WordPress or Joomla can do, providing security control of documents, publishing and recall of documents or document control, and these systems almost universally have a workflow component available or included. Additional technologies like recognition technologies, forms processing, COLD, aggregation, collaboration, records management, and library services are all common. While ECM are rarely used in the small and medium sized business market, if the conditions are right, some organizations may have to step up from a DMS to an ECM.

Examples include:

Although not a comprehensive list, contains a few more examples not named in this article of the 300 or so products sold into the United States market.

About the author

Randy Johnston

Randolph P. (Randy) Johnston, MCS has been a top rated speaker in the technology industry for over 40 years. He was inducted into the Accounting Hall of Fame in 2011. He was selected as a Top 25 Thought Leader in Accounting from 2011-2018. His influence throughout the accounting industry is highlighted once again this year by being a recipient of the 2017 Accounting Today Top 100 Most Influential People in Accounting award for the 14th consecutive year. Among his many other awards he holds the honor of being one of nine technology stars in the U.S. by Accounting Technology Magazine. Randy writes a monthly column for The CPA Practice Advisor, articles for the Journal of Accountancy, and creates articles for both accounting and technology publications, as well as being the author of numerous books. He has started and owns multiple businesses including K2 Enterprises in Hammond, Louisiana and Network Management Group, Inc. (NMGI) in Hutchinson, Kansas. NMGI has supported CPA firms for 30+ years and is the largest managed service provider serving the CPA profession in North America. His wife and four children enjoy many experiences together including theatre, music, travel, golf, skiing, snorkeling and model trains. Randy's experience as a college instructor, management and technology consultant, and advisor to the profession will be obvious to attendees at his conference presentations.

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