Picture That

How to tell the story with graphics.
BY NANCY A. BAGRANOFF AND MARK G. SIMKIN

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • SOFTWARE THAT PREPARES diagrams, such as flowcharts, can be a handy addition to an accountant’s toolbox.
  • SPECIFIC USES FOR DIAGRAMS in accounting settings abound. CPAs long have used flowcharts to analyze and illustrate internal controls, but today there are many more applications—from the flow of information processes to mapping an organization chart to graphically identifying the sources of data that flow into financial statements.
  • ANOTHER USE FOR graphical documentation (GD) is to help develop custom software programs.
  • ONE OF THE GREATEST benefits of GD software is its ability to link a graphic to a source file so any change in a source file number is displayed in the graphic.
  • WHAT TO LOOK for in a GD package:

    Ease of use. To many users, this may be the most important consideration in choosing a package, but resist that temptation. Instead, base your decision on what a package can do to help in your work.

    Symbol sets and templates. Check to see that the package you like has all the symbols and templates you will likely need.

    Drawing features. Such functions as adjustable curved line connectors, automatic line resizing, text rotation and the snap-to-grid feature are important.

NANCY A. BAGRANOFF, CPA, DBA, is associate professor of accounting at the R. T. Farmer School of Business Administration, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. Her e-mail address is bagranna@muohio.edu . MARK G. SIMKIN, PhD, is professor of accounting and CIS at the College of Business Administration, University of Nevada, Reno. His e-mail address is simkin@equinox.unr.edu . The authors wish to thank John F. Lacher, CPA, a custom applications developer in Worthington, Ohio. His e-mail address is lacher@lacher.com .

he managers of a large Midwest company were shocked when they reviewed a diagram of their computer network and discovered a redundant $325,000 data communications link between the West Coast office and headquarters. As it turned out, the line had been installed mistakenly while a key network engineer was on vacation. The discovery confirmed once again that not only is a picture worth a thousand words but also it’s often the best way to visualize and examine complex subjects. That’s why CPAs working with complex spatial subjects should consider using graphics to help them visualize and explain those subject to others.

Although diagrams certainly can be prepared freehand or with a word processor, the most efficient way is with a computer program specifically designed to do the job. In this article we help you find such a program, called graphical documentation (GD) software.

ILLUSTRATE THE PROCESS

Specific uses for diagrams in accounting settings abound. CPAs frequently use flowcharts to analyze and illustrate internal controls, but today there are many more applications—charting the flow of information processes, mapping an organizational structure and graphically identifying the sources of data flowing into financial statements.

It’s no surprise that most people would rather view process maps and graphical symbols than read descriptions. Exhibit 1 is an example of a process map for a university’s new student enrollment and collection process. Imagine how many words would be required to describe the same process.

Exhibit 1

A typical process map illustrates the flow of information.

GD software also can assist in developing custom software applications—(for example, spreadsheet templates for calculating depreciation)—projects of growing popularity among accountants.

But the software provides an even greater benefit: GD software lets you electronically link a graphic to a source file. In other words, if a number in a spreadsheet was dynamically linked to a corresponding number in a GD software graphic, the number in the graphic would change automatically when the spreadsheet number changes. Of course, we can’t demonstrate the dynamic links on this page, but if any of the numbers in exhibit 2 were dynamically linked to, say, a spreadsheet file where such underlying data were stored, a change to the spreadsheet number would automatically change the corresponding number in the graphic.

Exhibit 2

Link the graphic to a spreadsheet, and the numbers in the graphic change when the spreadsheet data change.

DESIRABLE FEATURES

To help you select a GD package, we look at four leading commercial products and suggest you examine the following features:

Ease of use. To many, this may be the most important consideration in choosing a package, but we believe you should not select a program just because it’s easy to use. Instead, base your decision on how well a package can help you in your work.

For most GD applications, the learning curve is not very steep. GD packages tend to be relatively similar: They have many functions common to Windows programs. For example, most support the conventional drag-and-drop process: To select a menu function, click on the appropriate icon and drag it to the desired location and then release the mouse button.

One package, allClear, even provides a choice between using drag-and-drop and a text-based system in which it converts user-created text directly into software-generated chart graphics (see exhibit 3). The process resembles Microsoft PowerPoint, in which the software automatically structures the text.

Exhibit 3: Product Information for Graphical Documentation Software
Product allClear FlowCharter SmartDraw Visio
Version 4.5 7 Professional 5.0 Professional 5.0
Vendor SPSS Micrografx SmartDraw
Software
Visio Corp. of America
Telephone 800-543-2185 888-744-1210 800-501-0314 800-248-4746
Web home page www.spss.com/
software/allClear
www.micrografx.
com/enterprise/
graphicssuite/
flowcharter
www.smartdraw.
com
www.visio.com/
products
List price $400 $299.95 $99 $359.95
System Requirements
Operating systems Windows 95, 98,
NT 4.0
Windows 95, 98,
NT 4.0
Windows 95, 98,
NT 4.0
Windows 95, 98,
NT 4.0
Minimum processor 486 or better 486DX or better
(Pentium recommended)
486 or better 486 or better
(Pentium recommended)
Minimum RAM 16 Mb 8 Mb (16 Mb recommended) 8 Mb (32 Mb recommended) 16 Mb (Windows 95, 98), 24 Mb (NT)
Minimum hard-disk space 40 Mb 32–86 Mb 20 Mb 15 Mb
Features        
Application building (allows conversion of diagram to an executable program) No Yes No Yes
Wizards No Yes No Yes
Ability to import spreadsheets and databases Yes Yes Yes (through cut and paste or insert object) Yes
Linking nodes to files Yes Yes No Yes
HTML output capability Yes No No Yes
Special features Option of converting text outline to diagram/chart. Checks text outline for logic/flow inconsistencies. WebCharter feature maps Web sites. Living FlowCharts feature helps users navigate through large documents. Free 30-day trial available at Web site. Online demos, customer templates, Web-based downloads available.

The more features and functionality a software program has, the more complex it tends to be. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the most feature-rich GD packages also are the most difficult to use. Quick tours, tutorials and easily accessible wizards make even the most complex packages user-friendly.

Symbol sets and templates. GD packages differ from each other in the number and type of drawing objects they can produce; the objects are collectively called symbol sets. Most packages contain more symbols than you’ll ever need—FlowCharter has almost 4,000, allClear comes with 380, SmartDraw has about 2,000 and Visio contains more than 1,000 network and telecom shapes alone. Typically, these symbols are collected into subsets called templates, or libraries, that focus on specific charting tasks—for example, symbols for drawing organization charts, developing computer networks, depicting project management activities and designing floor plans.

Drawing features. All the GD programs in this article can customize symbols with shading, borders and colors. They also let you redesign templates. For instance, in allClear, clicking on a toolbar button instantly reorganizes a segment of a diagram into a horizontal (right-to-left) view or a mirror image (left-to-right) view.

Features that affect the lines that link graphics and resizing of the graphics also distinguish GD packages from one another. For example, data flow diagrams call for curved line connectors. Any GD program will draw a straight line, but curved lines are more difficult. You can control the curvature of a line by clicking on just one point along the line or, better yet, on multiple points along the line to fine-tune the curve. All four products listed here allow for adjustments at multiple points.

Automatic line resizing is a real asset when symbols need moving. It’s frustrating to change arrow links in a flowchart manually when some symbols need repositioning. All the packages in this article automatically resize lines.

Another useful feature is a function called snap-to-grid, which automatically aligns symbols horizontally and vertically to a grid on the screen. It also lets you turn off the snap-to-grid function so you can position an object at an angle to the grid lines.

Text manipulation. If you’ve tried using word processor drawing tools to create a graphics document, you know how daunting it can be. The text may not fit inside the symbols, and even when it does, centering the text is difficult. GD software simplifies the task. When you enter text inside a symbol, some programs change the symbol’s size to accommodate the text automatically while keeping the text size constant; some programs use automatic text sizing—adjusting the font size while keeping the symbol a uniform size; and some programs provide a choice. In general, it’s preferable to keep the symbols of similar size. SmartDraw and Visio provide a choice. With FlowCharter, the font size stays constant as the symbol size changes. While allClear does not make either text or symbol size adjustments automatically, it does include tools that will do it.

Another valued feature is text rotation. Obviously, when you draw vertical lines in a chart, it’s helpful to be able to align the accompanying text parallel to those lines. Similarly, it’s often helpful to embed text at unusual angles—for example, within the arrows shown in exhibit 2. Again, most GD software (including all the packages in this article) can rotate text and symbols.

Not every GD package has a spell check feature. Generally, the less expensive products lack it. The professional version of SmartDraw contains one, but not the standard version. All the Visio products, allClear and FlowCharter include it.

OLE. A Windows feature, object linking and embedding (OLE), allows you to cut and paste graphics, text and tables from one Windows program to another, so that when you’re drafting a memo with a word processor, OLE will let you insert a drawing of an organization chart directly into your document. OLE also enables you to customize the object’s height, width and page placement within the document.

LINKING POWER

It’s important to understand the difference between embedding and linking objects in target documents. An embedded object is one that is copied from one application to another, as described in the preceding paragraph. In contrast, a linked object isn’t actually contained in the target document; it remains in its original file and is only referenced, or called upon, so it can be seen in the target document, but it never actually moves. Linking becomes advantageous when the source object undergoes a change—such as a variable number in a spreadsheet. Any time that source number changes, the change is reflected automatically in the target document; as a result, the source object in the target document always will be current.

But linking also has disadvantages: The links are lost if the target document is ported (sent) to another computer unless the other computer is on the same network and the link address is revised. So if you know that a file will be ported to a place that your computer can’t access, embed rather than link.

The GD software packages in this article—with the exception of allClear—can import files from competitor programs; that’s a feature of particular advantage if a colleague uses a different GD brand.

Web features and connectivity. When creating a complex diagram that must be shared with others, it’s helpful to place it on a Web page for easy access. Visio Pro and allClear let you output files in HTML. In addition, FlowCharter, allClear and Visio can create links to Web pages.

Application-building capabilities. FlowCharter and Visio can be used to build applications. With them you can embed macros in charts so that clicking on a symbol will evoke an executable program or dialog boxes that can be programmed to perform tasks, including instructions to users and displays of useful feedback.

Application development. While not all CPAs need software development tools, those who do will find some GD programs especially helpful. They can use GD software to build applications. Some programs (Visio and FlowCharter) can write scripts in Visual Basic (a popular programming language). In addition, allClear outlines may be saved as a text file for use in creating a Visual Basic script.

SELECTING A PACKAGE

Which package is best? All these products are competent and user-friendly. A best choice depends on your specific needs.

Before you decide on a package, think about the kinds of graphical documentation you use in your work. All four packages can generate all the graphics diagrams that accountants generally use. For example, flowcharts for evaluating information and internal control systems; process maps, like the one shown in exhibit 1, for showing a pictorial diagram of a business’s activities and processes; data flow diagrams for designing information systems; entity-relationship diagrams for use in modeling and depicting database designs. To make their use even easier, the packages include templates and models.

A second selection criterion might be the extent to which a particular GD package is user-friendly and easy to learn. Although this matter is subjective, check to see that a package lets you navigate easily and intuitively.

A third criterion is price. But as you see in exhibit 3, except for SmartDraw, the price spread is not that large.

GD software clearly can enhance the work of many accountants. It should be added to the collection of tools available to the professional.

FlowCharter 7 recently was upgraded to iGrafx. Everything said in the article about FlowCharter also is true for iGrafx except for the following:
  • The price is $400.
  • It needs at least a Pentium computer; Windows 95, 98 or NT; and 16 to 32 megabytes of RAM.

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