Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 48 seconds

document logoUnless you want to talk about the best physical storage devices, discussions about storage these days quickly turns to Web portals. But are Web portals as great an idea as vendors who market them think they are? And perhaps storage isn't the correct term in discussing all the relevants issues because use of Internet portals is simultaneously about document storage and document transmission.


And it's that not Greg Davis, partner in charge of technology at Kennedy & Coe isn’t considering client portals for storage and transmission of confidential documents. The firm has implemented iChannel, a document management system from Conarc, which comes with a client portal. It's just that he's not sure portals have such a great advantage in the eyes of users at his firm.

"It works great," he says. But Davis continues, "Our adoption and use is not what I thought by now." He believes users often find it easier to utilize the email encryption the firm has implemented for transmitting documents.

The right application for storing documents is also an issue. And Saline, Kan.,-based Kennedy & Coe, like many other firms, has created and stored many of its documents in CCH's ProSystem fx Engagement not the premise-based or SaaS sister product ProSystem fx Document. It's just that's not what Engagement was created for. So two years ago, the firm implemented a document management system and began taking all non-audit and non-trial balance applications out of Engagement, except users were soon asking to have them put back in the workpaper application.

To utilize documents properly, businesses must pay attention to how they are created, managed, transmitted and stored. The issue the tax and accounting  profession  faces is which applications are the proper ones for performing these tasks.

Jim Bourke, a partner at Red Bank, N.J.-based WithumSmith+Brown doesn't like either the use of encrypted email for transmission of confidential documents or of workpaper applications as document management systems.

There's a lot of talk about portals, Bourke notes. And he admits much of it is just talk. At a session at the recent AICPA Tech+ conference about 150 people attended his 7am session about portals. All were interested in portals; few had them.."Maybe the economy has set them back, This is technology. It’s tax. It’s not engagement management," he says. "It's added cost."

Bourke's firm also uses GoFileRoom, and its portal system is the firm's preferred method for delivering client documents. He says encrypted email is simply a clumsy way of doing the same thing. And as far as use of engagement applications for document management,  he asks how legitimate that use can be since engagement binders must be closed down after 60 days in most states, after 45 days in New York.

"Close them means lock them down, no modifications. You are not allowed to touch them," he says. Bourke say he has asked firms how they can use engagement products for document management while meeting the requirement to close binders. He says he gets blank look in answer to that question.

Howard Brown, chief technology officer of Doc-It, agrees engagement products are simply not efficient. That's because there is no easy way to open a binder and hunt for a single page because the documents in these applications aren't searchable.

CCH product manager Mark Ryburn is very aware of how ProSystem fx Engagement can be used. When he was in practice at a firm, "I was the Engagement champion and we used Engagement as our document management system."

Ryburn notes other drawbacks to using the workpaper product to manage documents. The binder must be synchronized in order to gain access to documents. Users have to know where a document is stored. Engagement also doesn't have capabilities to let firms set the date for removal of documents after required retention periods have elapsed.

But he sees the partner logic for turning to workpaper systems as following this theme:: "I own Engagement. I already have that investment in it and my staff is trained in it." He adds, "There is a cost benefit for using it as a document management system." However, instead of giving Engagement more document-management features. Document is scheduled to receive more workpaper features. CCH's introduction of a knowledge management product will probably blur the lines even more, he concedes.

In terms of document transmission, Ryburn agrees with Bourke that encrypted email is not viable in many cases. "If you have a QuickBooks file that is 30GB, you cannot email it. It will be blocked," he says. Although email is fine for sending single documents, it's not good when many documents have to be sent in a short period because each must be encrypted.

The advantages of portals, he continues, goes beyond that. If a client's tax return is posted to a portal, the client can access it without calling the firm. ProSystem fx Portal also has the advantage of being platform neutral. For clients and accountants, "It doesn’t matter if they have a Mac or what email service they use," Ryburn says. "They can get to that portal  to post a set of stock sales in an Excel spreadsheet." Another advantage of a portal is instead of sending a document such as a spreadsheet to client asking for additional information, the accountant can post it and ask the client to fill in the blanks.

Chandra Bhansali, CEO of Hauppauge, N.Y.-based AccountantsWorld says users are accelerating the adoption of portal products such as his company's CyberCabinet. "There is a very significant increase in demand," he notes. Bhansali also thinks there's a very basic answer for the slower-than-expected adoption of portals - most applications have been Windows-based, not Internet-based and the two platforms aren't always integrated, the way his says his company's totally Internet-based product set has been for several years.

One question for users is whether to by portal from a specialized vendor, like Doc It or SmartVault, or from companies like Thomson Reuters with its GoFileRoom and FileCabinet CS products.

There are lots of products from companies that don't make tax and accounting packages. Dave Cieslak, a partner at Simi Valley-based Arxis Technology, listed several Internet-based applications in his talk at Tech+.

"The product that I and a lot of people have fallen in love with is the DropBox," he says. "It's free and fast." That's the Basic edition with 2GB of storage that is free. The Pro 50 version with 50GB storage is $9.99 per month and the Pro 100 with 100GB is $19.99 per month. However, these products from outside the tax-and-accounting world don't let the user brand documents and Cieslak generally wouldn't use them when working with clients. And again, they don't integrate with the tax and accounting lines.

SmartVault, which had been limited to use by QuickBooks owners, branched out this year to let those with other applications use the product. CEO Eric Pulaski says he wants his product "to become the Switzerland of document applications" meaning it can work with many products.

Pulaski lists another reason while portals might not be getting the expected acceptance. They are immature products. "The portal solutions are like a version 1.0 step of just getting out a product," he says.

In SmartVault's case, its products are getting simpler ways for sharing documents and steps to make workflow easier. For example, now, he says, "When you log into the system, we can detect if you are an internal firm users versus a guest user."

Bob Scott
Bob Scott has provided information to the tax and accounting community since 1991, first as technology editor of Accounting Today, and from 1997 through 2009 as editor of its sister publication, Accounting Technology. He is known throughout the industry for his depth of knowledge and for his high journalistic standards.  Scott has made frequent appearances as a speaker, moderator and panelist and events serving tax and accounting professionals. He  has a strong background in computer journalism as an editor with two former trade publications, Computer+Software News and MIS Week and spent several years with weekly and daily newspapers in Morris County New Jersey prior to that.  A graduate of Indiana University with a degree in journalism, Bob is a native of Madison, Ind
Last modified on Sunday, 02 June 2013
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