Welcome back to Workflow 101, where we break down what workflow is and how to make it work for you. If you’re coming in mid-series, check out the other posts here, or jump right into our discussion on how to choose the right automated workflow solution for your organization.
Manual workflow documentation and improvements – such as those discussed throughout the course of this series – can only increase organizational productivity and capacity so much. A spreadsheet will always have the same limitations, and manual processes are still subject to human error. To continue to support growth, the organization needs to implement an optimized, standardized, and automated workflow solution. But with all of the options out there, which solution is best for your organization?
Before you start considering the myriad options out there (and there are many), go back to the basics discussed earlier in the series. Figure out what is, and isn’t, working. Assess the status of current operations and determine the vision for improvement. Ask these questions to determine what workflow features would be the most beneficial to the organization:
- What’s driving your desire to improve workflow? Common answers include client acquisition, increased realization, billing, cost base fluctuations, increased (or virtual) client interactions, staffing engagement and retention issues, and staff development.
- What and where are current bottlenecks? How are they impacting work completion? Ensure that you involve staff at all levels when answering this question; different levels have different needs.
- How are the applications and processes in use today delivering productivity at each level (individual contributor, manager, and partner)? What would help individual contributors increase productivity? What tools would help management deliver better results? How can leadership improve visibility to KPI’s and take actions to improve outcomes?
- How is the firm dealing with information, data, and work products in various point solutions? Consider both task-specific solutions such as tax or audit and general solutions such as spreadsheets, email, and independently developed data files.
- How are you managing and allocating resources to all projects and deliverables? How is work being assigned/reassigned? When new employees are brought on, how do they learn processes and deliverable expectations? When resources are overloaded/no longer available for an engagement, how do you deal with the challenge?
Once each question has been answered, and the pain points have been clearly defined, it’s time to dive into the workflow market and evaluate solutions. When researching the best workflow solution for your firm, make sure to ask these questions:
How (and by whom) was it developed?
Each industry has quirks, and accounting is no different. Your workflow solution should be designed with the unique needs of the accounting industry in mind, taking into account the ethical, regulatory, and client-specific constraints placed on firms.
One example of this is due dates. Workflow solutions that weren’t designed with accountants in mind often overlook this crucial piece of information, placing the burden of tracking and updating due dates on the firm. To avoid this, look for a workflow tool developed for the accounting industry with input from industry experts and CPAs and business process subject matter experts who understand how a highly effective workflow affects productivity.
A workflow solution designed by accountants, for accountants, will understand the importance of due dates and work diligently to ensure accurate due dates, which means less work for the firm.
While discussing the development process, don’t forget to ask about the improvement and update cycle. Ideally, the workflow solution should promote the concept of continuous improvement – and keep both CPAs and BPI subject matter experts on staff to help with development.
How easy is it to use?
Your workflow solution should be both intuitive and functional. In a perfect post-implementation world, your staff would be raving about the new tool and how easy it is to use. Unfortunately, it’s not always immediately apparent with a Google search which workflow solutions embrace usability AND productivity benefits.
Ask your professional network what benefits – and unexpected pain points – they see with their workflow solution. Get as specific as you can, and keep in mind the pain points brought up by your staff when asking questions.
What are the documented productivity and capacity gains?
It’s easy to claim that a workflow tool will save employees 60-70 minutes every day. More problematic is providing hard data to back up claims. Ask for a breakdown of that claim – what are those 60-70 minutes comprised of?
For example, during XCM’s most recent annual customer survey, we learned that our customers see an average of 1.5 hours of recaptured time per person every day. We also learned that they have reduced the time spent searching for status updates by 12 minutes. They’ve gained back 10 minutes compiling various tax-related reports, reduced the time spent managing client inquiries by eight minutes, and spent nine minutes less organizing their daily to-do list. And this is only a partial list of the documented ways that our customers have gained back time. When researching workflow solutions, ask for a breakdown of where the time-savings occurs.
Does the workflow solution integrate with our existing tech stack?
Any workflow solution needs to “play nicely” with existing tools and software? Does it share data across technologies so that your organization can build its optimal tech stack? Ask how this workflow tool will interact with the technology solutions already implemented by your organization. Can it share data with other solutions? How many APIs has it developed to work with other tools? Will it work with robotics or AI or project-based decision solutions? As more and more software moves to the cloud, achieving and maintaining peak productivity can hinge on employees’ ability to leverage every tool in your tech stack.
Having a list of your existing tech stack makes it easier to determine whether the solutions under consideration have the necessary API’s to integrate with your existing tech stack. If the answer is “no,” don’t give up. A customer-focused workflow solution will often work with the other vendors in your tech stack to develop an API that can share the necessary data between platforms.
Don’t forget to ask about security when discussing APIs. The vendor should have security in place to ensure that only authorized individuals – and organizations – are accessing your data. For example, here at XCM Solutions, access is only provided to clients with a specific digital key. Without the key, the API will not function.
What are its benchmarking capabilities?
When thinking about consolidating tools, optimizing technology, and increasing productivity, consider workflow tools that allow you to create benchmarks. With the right workflow solution, you should be able to compare KPIs year-over-year without significant manual intervention. Collecting the data and leveraging it should not be a full-time job.
Ask about the availability of national averages, including averages based on segment size. Having the ability to view key KPIs and benchmark them against prior years should be an essential part of your approach to your technology stack in general and workflow solution in specific. XCM Solutions supports collecting and leveraging data through technologies within XCM modules and external tools such as business intelligence software, Tableau, or Amazon QuickSight.
What does implementation look like, and what’s the timeline?
Implementation success – or failure - can determine the adoption and approval of any new tool. Ask for the roadmap to implementation, and once again, get specific. What percentage of the heavy lifting will fall to your organization, and how much will the workflow solution do for you? Who will import the data and ensure its accuracy? Does customization cost extra? What about training?
The right workflow solution will have a clear map to implementation – to see what I mean, take a look at XCM’s roadmap to implementation.
Almost as important as what implementation looks like is the implementation timeline. If the perfect workflow solution’s implementation team is fully booked for the next six months, have a conversation with others in leadership about whether it’s worth it to wait.
What support system would we implement along with the new software?
Software transitions often come with an onslaught of tiny roadblocks, technical questions, and lots of employee feedback, even with the best implementation team. In a smaller organization, tech support may be, “email Jamie,” but that’s not going to scale, and it’s not fair to Jamie. Ask what support options are available through your workflow solution and what you’ll be responsible for providing yourself.
As each workflow solution is considered, use the questions above to help understand how each workflow solution provides additional visibility, control, flexibility, and accountability throughout the firm. Ask your professional network for their opinion – what workflow solutions are they are using, what benefits (and costs) they see from the technology. And make sure to consider how the workflow will impact all levels of the organization, from individual contributor to executive.
Having the right workflow tool integrated into your business processes gives you the answers to five basic – and critical – questions about your work; who, what, when, where, and why. It allows you to dig into prior challenges and future obstacles, to look at how your team overcame an issue or responded to a question previously. And the right workflow solution will enable your organization to improve productivity, accuracy, and efficiency across departments.