Chicken or the Egg: Does Process Dictate Technology or Technology Dictate Process?

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Both! And, neither. I mean – it depends. That helps, right? While I always advise people to fix their processes first, there are times that the technology will not allow for the ideal state of the defined process. In these instances, we need to be somewhat flexible in requirements for process and ideal state process. Finding the perfect technology solution needs to be finessed with compromises from the most effective process.

Paper-based process and technology-based process are inherently different. When everything was in person, using filing cabinets, initialing, and physically signing things – workflows needed to be different. As we have adopted technology and moved into a digital office, our workflows have necessarily been modified. Having a step for physical initials, or paper submissions, while utilizing technology does not make sense anymore. Let’s take a traditional tax workflow as an example. When I started my career, everything was paper based. Our individual tax preparation process looked something like this:

  1. Preparer: Collect physical tax documents.
  2. Preparer: Create the workpaper file.Copy tax documents into a file.
    1. Number tax documents with a pencil.
    2. Add up every like-kind tax document on a calculator strip. Tape the strips on lead sheets.
    3. Reference every number back to the underlying workpaper.
  3. Preparer: Type the numbers into a tax software. (Yes, this piece utilized the computer.)
  4. Preparer: Print a completed copy of the return.
  5. Preparer: Initial as prepared on return sheet.
  6. Reviewer: Tie-out paper workpaper file to tax return.
  7. Reviewer: Send notes back to preparer. Initial return sheet with first review completed.
  8. Preparer: Clear points. Initial return sheet as cleared.
  9. Signer: Complete second review, sign return, coordinate for client signatures and filing, and sign off on return sheet as signer review completed.
  10. File Room Admin: Collate returns, file the workpapers, send source documents back to the client, and sign return sheet as records filed complete.

How has technology modified this process?

  1. Admin: Collect PDF of tax documents from client.
    1. Push tax documents through an OCR service.
    2. OCR service automatically organizes and reads the tax documents.
  2. Admin: Import OCR service file into the tax software. Select import complete in project management software to automatically trigger the next step.
  3. Preparer: Review the import and corrects what is needed. Click preparer review completed to automatically trigger a to-do item for the reviewer.
  4. Reviewer: Tie out paper workpaper file to tax return.
  5. Reviewer: Send notes back to preparer, generally in the project management software. Click first review complete.
  6. Preparer: Clear points. Click review points cleared.
  7. Signer: Complete second review and digitally signs the return.
  8. Admin: PDF of return is saved to the client portal. Efile signature docs are digitally sent with KBA for client signings. When signature forms executed, the system automatically marks the return ready for efile release.

In this instance, the use of the technology does indeed modify the process. We no longer need everything that goes along with a giant paper file. We can have automatic triggers on our digital workflow. Instead of physically walking a paper file down the hall, we can click a button from anywhere that we inform the next person in the workflow that the return is ready for them. We do need a project management system as we do not have the physical files hanging out in giant stacks on our desks for preparation. The process at its core is the same, but the actions and the how are very different.

When we are looking at different workflows within a firm, the process is going to dictate the technology. For example, let’s think about a sales process. In your sales process, do you send a quote for approval before an engagement letter? Do you send multiple options that a prospect would need to sign? Do you send annual engagement letters to every client? All of these pieces would create a slightly different process that would have different technology needs. In these instances, I recommend deciding your ideal process first with all of the requirements. Then, vet the technology and see if there is an affordable option that meets all of your process requirements. If so, perfect! Implement it! If not, go back and see which pieces you can modify or are willing to compromise. If you need help defining process, read this article I wrote: A Process for Efficient Process Improvement.

While there is an element of both process guiding technology choices, there is also an element of technology guiding process choices. It is best to have an idea of your ideal state before implementing any technology and it is also necessary to be flexible as you improve workflows. Remember, both process and technology are ongoing evolutions.

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Liz Mason is a serial entrepreneur, a giant nerd, and an involved accounting vanguard. She is the Founder of High Rock Accounting, Rebel Rock Accounting, TheDepartment.Tax, and a few other related brands. Liz speaks on a national stage, guests stars on podcasts, and writes frequently. To further her passion for the advancement of the accounting profession, Liz currently serves as a Xero National Ambassador and as the Content Strategist for Tax Practice News. Liz started her career in tax at Grant Thornton (at 20) and automated a portion of her job landing her in the national tax practice. She spent a decade in large public accounting firms working on highly technical tax consulting before branching off on her own. Liz utilizes her creativity and passion at her company to uproot traditional practices and replace them with innovative concepts. She finds joy in efficient technology and her core belief is that everyone and everything can continuously improve (she says "be better" too often). When Liz isn't planning world domination in accounting, she is a die-hard skier, down for any adventure, plays the ukulele, reads everything, and has a good sense of humor. If you're looking for her, you can find her traveling the world and enjoying new food and cultures with her young son. Follow Liz and High Rock Accounting on Twitter at @LizzyNorMa and @HighRockCPAs.