Cloud-based document management services aren't new, but the leading provider of on-premises software for advisors is expanding its offering with a new online service.
Attend any advisor conference or read any advisor trade publication (including this column) and one topic emerges to dominate the discussion: the cloud. Advisors have more options than ever to leverage the cloud, loosely defined as any service delivered over the Internet, including applications such as CRM, portfolio management, and financial planning software.
However, when it comes to document management applications, advisors have few choices for moving such a robust program off of their local server infrastructure and into the cloud. Such applications maintain a large number of documents of all types and sizes organized under complicated taxonomies and filing structures, and transferring large volumes of data over the Internet negatively affects speed and performance of the system.
Laserfiche, a leading provider of on-premises document management software for financial advisors, is tackling the challenges of delivering document management over the cloud by offering an optimized version of its enterprise application to the financial services industry.
From Desktop to Cloud
Laserfiche has a long history among financial advisors; the company specifically dedicated resources to the financial services industry more than 10 years ago. According to Tim Welsh, president of Nexus Strategy and consultant for the company, Laserfiche now has over 4,000 financial services installations worldwide allocated across various banks, credit unions, broker-dealers, registered investment advisers, and other financial institutions. Laserfiche document management software was cited as the top on-premises solution among advisors, selected by 10% of the 3,200 participants in the 2011 Financial Planning Magazine Technology Survey.
Still, the overwhelming majority of advisors use no document management software, and two drawbacks of the on-premises model might explain the lack of adoption. First, purchasing on-premises software such as Laserfiche Avante (the version for 100 users and fewer) can require a sizable initial investment, including a multi-thousand-dollar SQL Server license and individual user licenses priced at $500 each. Second, the typical advisory firm often incurs additional IT administration costs to configure and maintain servers needed to support the application.
By offering a cloud-based version of its software, Laserfiche aims to minimize the drawbacks of the on-premises model and offer a capable yet cost-effective solution to the financial services industry.
Laserfiche sells its product through a global reseller program, and as this column goes to press, two resellers provide the cloud-based solution for the financial services market. Datamax of Texas offers CloudWise™ Content, and One Source Document Solutions in Greensboro, N.C., offers AdvisorsData. This column highlights the AdvisorsData product, but there is no functional difference compared with CloudWise Content.
Founded in 1994, One Source Document Solutions first offered document management solutions in 1996 and became a Laserfiche reseller in 2001. According to Kevin Smith, president and CEO of One Source Document Solutions, target industries include the local government and financial services sectors; in the latter category, the company serves approximately 185 firms representing over 4,000 users.
In November 2011, One Source Document Solutions released AdvisorsData, which is built on Laserfiche Rio™, the version of the "agile enterprise content management" platform designed for organizations with more than 100 users. Users gain access to their document repository using Laserfiche Web Access, a browser-based client compatible with most modern Internet browsers. Note that users of Laserfiche Avante can purchase Web Access for their on-premises installation, typically priced at $100 per user.
AdvisorsData displays three main windowpanes once the user successfully logs in to the system. The top-left window is a navigation pane consisting of two tabs: one to view and browse the repository's folder hierarchy and one to access search functions across the document repository.
Below the navigation pane is a properties window that displays three types of information: a single-page preview with basic file information (including file type, date modified, and user who created the file), a thumbnail preview of all pages in the selected document, and the metadata view identifying the selected document's assigned template and associated descriptive data.
To the right of the navigation and properties panes is the main folder and document viewer. This viewer displays all files and sub-folders in the folder currently selected in the navigation pane. Double-clicking on PDF or image files (e.g., JPG, TIFF, PNG, etc.) creates a new tab in the viewer and displays a preview of the document. Document previews are displayed using PNG images, which are much smaller in file size than original PDF files or raw images. This size reduction means document previews load quickly over the Internet instead of requiring users to first download entire PDF files that might be several megabytes in size.
However, native application files such as Microsoft Word, Excel, or Outlook emails cannot be previewed as easily. Such files require the associated application to be installed on the computer in use in order to view, and they must be downloaded to the local computer before they can be opened. This is a noteworthy sacrifice in speed when using AdvisorsData over an on-premises Laserfiche installation.
Capture to the Cloud
Adding documents and files to AdvisorsData is a straightforward process. The document viewer window features a customizable toolbar at the top that includes an import icon. The import function is used to add files of any type from a computer. After opening the import window, users browse their local computer for the file(s) to be added to the current folder selected in AdvisorsData.
To import documents directly from a scanner, users click the scanner icon in the document viewer toolbar. This launches the scanning plug-in compatible with scanners featuring ISIS or TWAIN drivers. The popular ScanSnap line of scanners from Fujitsu does not support ISIS or TWAIN drivers, so scans from those devices must first be saved to the local computer and then manually imported using the process described earlier. Multiple documents can be scanned in one batch and then separated when indexing into AdvisorsData.
Search and Retrieval
Search functionality in AdvisorsData is identical to what is offered in the on-premises Laserfiche installation, so there is no reduction in search capabilities by moving to the cloud. Searches can be very broad or as detailed as needed. Users can search for documents using only keywords, much like performing a Google search on the Internet, or they can add advanced filters such as date ranges, document types, client names, and so on.
Searching for records in AdvisorsData is very comprehensive, as users can search for keywords among any combination of file names, text within documents, document metadata, or document annotations.
"This is truly where Laserfiche shines, regardless of licensing model," Smith says. All files matching the search query appear in the folder viewer pane, and keyword matches within each document are shown below the folder viewer to provide context surrounding each match. Being able to quickly review the context of each search result is a big time saver when searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. In my opinion, this is a must-have feature in any document management system.
Even though it is based in the cloud, AdvisorsData doesn't suffer from a lack of integrations with popular advisor software. Integrations are supported with CRM software including Junxure, Ebix SmartOffice, Microsoft Dynamics® CRM, Sage, and a "lite" version of Salesforce. Smith says the company plans to update AdvisorsData with a full Salesforce integration through the AppExchange later this year as well as provide access to Laser App form-filling software.
AdvisorsData users also gain access to the Laserfiche app for iPhone and soon-to-be-released app for iPad. These apps allow users to access documents in AdvisorsData from the mobile device and even add documents using the camera on the iPhone or new iPad (the iPad 2's rear-facing camera cannot capture high-quality images of documents).
As mentioned earlier, high initial costs likely prevent many advisors from installing Laserfiche on-premises. By turning to the cloud deployment of AdvisorsData, advisors can get up and running in minutes after providing their billing information.
Priced with the small RIA in mind, monthly fees range from $58 to $88 per user depending on the size of the firm. The average small firm with five employees would pay around $325 per month. All plans include up to 20 GB of file storage, unlimited numbers of folders, encrypted backups, and other features. Annual fees for AdvisorsData are less than half the initial licensing cost for an on-premises Laserfiche Avante installation, and that doesn't include any added costs for potential server upgrades and/or maintenance.
AdvisorsData is yet another example of cloud-based solutions for advisors that offer the flexibility to work from any location and the ability to offload maintenance of expensive servers. Leveraging the existing capabilities of its on-premises solutions, Laserfiche now provides a functional document management alternative at a more attractive price point for smaller advisory firms. As with any cloud-based application, advisors should be aware of potential sacrifices in terms of speed and usability, but will be rewarded with lower initial costs and no server maintenance requirements. Advisors should consider AdvisorsData and CloudWise Content when evaluating their options to manage documents in the cloud.