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5 Steps to an Effective Document Management System and Workflow Solution

written by Editor, 12 September 2014

Blog by Dave Pearson, Digita Senior Development Manager – Practice & Workflow

It’s vital to get the right fit of Document Management System for your practice’s needs and opportunities – but how do you determine what that fit is when no two practices are the same and there’s such a wide array of differing functionality available?

Understanding where you currently lie on a spectrum of needs and where you plan to be in the next 1, 3 or even 5 years is an important first step. Making the right choices can drastically save you time on managing the vast numbers of documents produced and processed every day, as well as saving money through efficiencies and providing opportunities to further strengthen client relationships.

It helps to recognise your understanding of what a Document Management System (DMS) can offer and your attitude to change and risk. For example, storing documents in physical filing cabinets and making a note of who has the file is clearly a DMS of some kind, but this is inefficient and precarious in many ways.

Walking through the spectrum of DMS opportunities and limitations and considering each facet will help you decide where you need to be – from organisation to retrieval options, and cloud to workflow decisions.

Step 1 – Electronic Storage
The first step is having the ability to electronically store your documents. It’s well documented that switching to an electronic system will reduce the physical space taken up by your documents and allow them to be backed up and kept in a safe location.

Whilst an electronic system mitigates some risks and removes inefficiencies such as printing, lost paperwork and the time taken to find and retrieve a physical file, it also introduces new risks:

•    You are responsible for making sure that your data is backed up and securely stored.
•    You maintain the hardware/software to keep protected.

Of course, you can employ a third-party to set up your backup regime and let them put your disaster recovery solution in place. But does this give you enough payback for the outlay? Possibly not.

Step 2 – Organisation
You may want to rethink how you organise your documents. Typically, we’ve used a folder structure to organise by any combination of client, year, service, type, etc. This is born from the way we do things in the physical world and is very inflexible; one system won’t suit the way everyone wants to work.

The solution could be a tagging system which lets you tag documents multiple times in a variety of ways and then to search or present the documents in a much more customisable way – each user could have a different view that suits the way they work.

How you get documents into the system is an important consideration. Scanning paper-based documents is the standard solution, but once scanned, is the document treated as an image or can you still search the text of the document? Some DMS provide OCR capabilities allowing the text in an image to be identified and made editable and searchable.

You’ll also need to think about what other software you use; is the DMS integrated with these other applications? This capability could include being able to import a file from the application in its native format into the DMS (rather than to a common format such as pdf), drag and drop or print to the DMS. Some applications have built in support for a number of document management systems and can be configured to link directly with the DMS and make it easy to put files in the correct location and tag appropriately.

Step 3 – Accessibility
So, what about accessibility? Having an electronic DMS eliminates the shortfall of a physical file. A single site set up is pretty straight forward, but what if your practice operates over several locations or perhaps some staff members adopt flexible working patterns and work from home? Many systems accommodate secure connection over VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), whilst for ultimate flexibility you could consider a cloud solution.

You may also want to think about concurrency, i.e. allowing multiple staff to work with the same document simultaneously, rather than being limited to a single item which either needs to be passed around or duplicated. Perhaps staff will only need to view the documents, but you may want to weigh up whether they’ll need to add notes and annotate documents or update them and whether you’ll need an audit of who did what and keep a retrievable history of previous versions or archive them to manage space in you live environment.

Step 4 – Cloud
Things start to get really interesting when we look at cloud as a solution, particularly if it opens new doors for allowing your clients limited access to the system. Allowing them to add their own documents can take the onus off you and remove a potential bottle neck and postage costs (a saving for you and your client).

Wrapping this up in a client portal expands these opportunities further and extends the services you can offer. It not only allows the customer to self-serve, but it gives you a 24 hour presence and helps builds the relationships with your clients. More importantly, it removes the need or temptation to exchange sensitive documents via email and potentially adds the capabilities to electronically confirm receipt and acceptance of a document or to digitally sign them to prevent tampering.

It’s not just your clients that benefit from the cloud; if it’s online, it adds that extra level of accessibility and opens up the opportunity to access from home or on the road.
Just because it’s in the cloud you should still know where your data is stored. Is it in stored in the UK in a secure data centre? How secure is ‘secure’; is it the same level security as you’d expect from your bank (tier 4 is the current benchmark) and what disaster recovery plans and service level agreements (SLA) do they put in place?

Step 5 – Workflow
One of the most significant changes to DMS over recent years is the realisation that documents are an integral part of your practices workflow. Tools are catching up to allow you to map the collection, movement and use of documents as a workflow. Many tasks are predictable and should be the same time after time making the process easier to learn, more repeatable, and less prone to mistakes. It also makes then much easier to price.

The inclusion of document workflow into DMS allows you to automate and track the progress of these ‘jobs’, routing documents through departments and implementing approval chains. They can also alert you, your team or the client that a task is on their to-do list and ensure the appropriate documents are available. Effectively, document can ‘travel’ around the workflow and be available and up to date as required. Considering teams and pools of people rather than just individuals is an important concept.

Exception reports that show you what you need to know (rather than showing everything) reduce risk and save time and can give you statistical and management overviews allowing you to manage your practice.

Workflow tasks themselves could be a checklist, a process or a task. The completion of that step could be driven from the workflow task itself or from the action of completing the task elsewhere in the system.

Building and modifying these workflows is an opportunity to analyse processes and look for efficiency gains to allow you to focus on the added value tasks such as advice and chargeable tax work.

So, don’t just think about your current practice, ask yourself how you plan to develop and grow to ensure your system can grow with you or give you a route to move on. Is it scalable and configurable so it can adapt for your changing needs. What if you move on to another provider, can you get your documents out of the system in a format that still makes them accessible?

Ultimately, your choice will depend on your appetite for change and improvement. You could take a DMS and workflow solution and plug it into your practice to keep things working pretty much as you’ve always worked, but that wouldn’t be realising the potential benefits. The technology is there, but it still needs you to embrace it and see how far it can take you.

Questions or comments? Please post them below.


  1. 01-09-2016

    Marry Daniel commented:

    Very interesting post ! No doubt that records management and document management is very necessary to carry on organizational tasks in a smooth way. very impressive and efficient software. It not only provides security but also saves time.

  2. 23-06-2015

    John Klok commented:

    Great post ! Now a days document management system is very essential for big as well as SME’s also. Every organization has data and document which requires good handling and management. Using the latest Document Management System and office automation is very helpful and advantageous. It removes the unnecessary spaces and keeps the document safe and secure.

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