Technology & Innovation

Transform your business with AI. From basic automation to breakthrough innovation

What if you were told that the key to outpacing your competition wasn't working harder but working smarter, with AI as your chief strategist?

Artificial intelligence (AI) can reshape how your business operates, competes, and delivers value. However, with a competing number of tools and guidance, understanding how it can do this may be tricky.

That’s because beneath the umbrella term “AI” lies a labyrinth of subcategories.

In finance, you might already be using automation. Automation is a well-known subcategory of AI software that follows pre-programmed rules to run processes. Yet, this isn’t quite the same thing as AI software that displays self-learning capability through machine learning, like generative AI.

This diversity, while rich in potential, presents a challenge: the complexity and breadth of AI can be overwhelming, you may need help to grasp the full scope and nuance of what it can offer you.

That’s where this guide comes in. Let’s start with understanding automation.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article

Why is automation important to you?

What is robotic process automation, and why does it matter?

The strategic edge of AP automation

Generative AI: A new frontier in financial innovation

Understand where AI fits into your business goals

Bring the right people in

AI strategies for success

Final thoughts

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Why is automation important to you?

The concept of automation in business has traversed a remarkable journey. It has evolved from the simple mechanization of routine tasks to the sophisticated orchestration of processes driven by AI.

At its core, business automation uses technology to execute recurring tasks or processes where manual effort can be replaced.

This increases efficiency, reduces human error, and frees employees to engage in more complex, value-adding activities.

Initially focussed on repetitive and time-consuming tasks, automation technology has expanded its scope. Automation now includes intelligent decision-making and predictive analytics thanks to AI and machine learning advancements.

This shift enhances operational efficiency and gives you more profound insights into your business operations, making your decision-making more strategic.

Why you should free up time with automation

Dr Ali Rezaei Yazdi understands the value of automation.

He is the lead data scientist and machine learning engineer at BlackLine. Dr Yazdi designs and builds AI platforms, working with stakeholders to understand and translate business requirements into data science problems.

To Dr. Yazdi, artificial intelligence is about giving people the time and freedom to do what they’re good at. Which is to use our conscience and cognitive capabilities to think, consider, analyze, make informed decisions, and provide wisdom.

Dr. Yazdi’s insights

“Machines through automation can perform the boring and time-consuming tasks that can waste a lot of your time,” he says.

“Computers through AI can take the information you submit to provide you with the ideal place to eat in a second. Why spend time searching when, with a program, you can be provided with a suggestion?”

“Understanding that you can use machines for these tedious, repetitive tasks was very important to me and was one of the reasons I got into AI.”

“Life is very short, and we’re living in a world where we’re faced with lots of options, possibilities, data, and devices.”

“Using a restaurant example, testing all the places you can go to could take hours, days, if not months. Why not save time through software using your submitted information based on yourself, your family, or your friends?”

Dr. Yazdi’s insights into the transformative power of automation and AI extend naturally into accounting software, highlighting its capability to revolutionize traditional processes.

Accounting software exemplifies how automation can liberate professionals from the monotonous and time-intensive tasks that often dominate their workdays.

By automating routine operations such as data entry, transaction recording, and financial report generation, these advanced tools allow people to focus on more strategic tasks requiring human insight and expertise.

Read more: Not just ChatGPT. How to take advantage of the AI finance revolution

What is robotic process automation, and why does it matter?

Before generative AI became all the rage, the focus was more on robotic process automation (RPA). This is accounting software can free up the “boring and time-consuming tasks” that consume significant time.

RPA is a technology that automates highly repetitive and rule-based business processes. These processes typically involve manipulating data, processing transactions, or triggering responses in various IT systems and applications.

In software, RPA can configure software “robots” or “bots” to capture and interpret applications for:

  • processing a transaction
  • manipulating data
  • triggering responses
  • communicating with other digital systems.

In finance, there are many tasks, while necessary, that do not require the cognitive capabilities, conscience, or analytical skills that humans possess.

Instead, by automating such processes, RPA allows individuals and organizations to redirect their focus toward activities that benefit from human insight, creativity, and decision-making.

This leads to more efficient use of time and enhances job satisfaction and the overall quality of work.

With financial software, RPA can automate routine tasks such as data entry for cash allocation or reconciling transactions against bank statements—tasks that traditionally require considerable manual effort and are prone to human error.

Read more: Slash uncertainty with SaaS tech stack AI

3 levels of robotic process automation (RPA)

RPA is already used to automate back-office functions in many work environments. There are 3 levels of RPA that you’ll need to understand:

1. Simple process replacement

This is considered the entry-level of robotics. This tends to be process automation or replacing manual, repetitive tasks with a software-generated program.

We’re already seeing this in finance departments as part of accounting software. It has been in maturity for the past 10 to 15 years.

2. Learning

Not only does software replace data from documents or add to a workflow, but it can also learn and complete transactions.

For example, it could read fields in a document and know what fields to populate in similar documents for the future. It could also use an algorithm based on previous known transactions to make software-based decisions that would take a human a long time.

3. Cognitive

This is where software automation gets to a level associated with more advanced forms of AI. This software pulls in different and complex data sets and uses algorithms to cross-check, learn, and make decisions much faster than humans.

This layered approach to RPA highlights the progression from merely automating tasks to enabling systems to “think” and make decisions akin to human reasoning.

With automation technologies, we’re moving towards more integrated, intelligent systems that can significantly enhance efficiency and effectiveness in business operations.

Dr. Yazdi says, “RPA can increase productivity, save costs, increase efficiency, and simplify processes.”

“Businesses can free more time to innovate by using machines to take on repetitive, time-consuming tasks. Humans can spend more time on creative tasks that need reasoning, cognition, thinking, and wisdom.”

The strategic edge of AP automation

RPA is a foundational technology that paves the way for accounts payable (AP) automation. This is a more specialized application that targets the financial processes crucial for maintaining your business’s fiscal health and operational efficiency.

Advancements in AI strengthen this integration, boosting the capacity of AP Automation to process, analyze, and manage financial transactions with unparalleled accuracy and insight.

Unpacking AP automation

AP automation transcends traditional financial processing by incorporating AI to streamline, optimize, and revolutionize financial departments.

At its core, AP automation automates the end-to-end process of managing supplier invoices, from receipt to payment.

This technology is instrumental in transforming the role of finance departments, shifting from manual, time-consuming tasks to strategic, value-adding activities.

AI advancements have been pivotal in this transformation, letting financial management systems (like Sage Intacct) learn from data, make informed decisions, and predict future financial trends accurately.

These AI-driven capabilities mean that AP automation boosts operational efficiency and enhances the strategic decision-making process within finance departments.

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Why use AP automation?

Implementing AP automation brings many benefits, including:

  • improved operational efficiency
  • enhanced accuracy in financial transactions
  • notable reduction in processing costs.

These benefits collectively contribute to a more robust, strategic financial operation that drives business growth and competitiveness in the digital age.

Moreover, the shift towards AP automation frees up valuable human resources, allowing finance professionals to focus on strategic planning and analysis rather than mundane, repetitive tasks.

The strategic benefits of AP automation are compelling. With careful planning, stakeholder engagement, and a clear strategy for integration and adoption, it paves the way for enhanced efficiency, accuracy, and strategic insight into financial operations.

Generative AI: A new frontier in financial innovation

Generative AI represents a significant leap in the automation landscape, transitioning from task automation to the automation of creation.

It’s a new chapter where AI is not just a tool for streamlining operations and data analysis. It’s also a creative partner capable of generating original content and innovative solutions.

The core benefit of generative AI lies in its advanced algorithms and machine learning models, which can produce outputs that closely mimic human-generated content after being trained on extensive datasets.

This capability extends across various domains, including text, images, music, and even complex business and financial strategies.

Read more: Generative AI in 7 easy steps: A practical business guide

The synergy of generative AI and continuous accounting

AI and automation can directly embed financial recording and analysis into daily business operations, making continuous accounting a reality.

Continuous accounting is an evolutionary step from traditional periodic financial reporting. It has transformed into a dynamic, real-time process, integrating financial processes into the everyday flow of business operations. This ensures that financial data is always current, accurate, and readily actionable.

Generative AI, with its ability to automate the creation of content, can extend its power to support continuous accounting by generating insightful predictive models, automating complex financial narratives, and producing innovative solutions tailored to specific business needs.

This represents a leap towards proactive, insightful financial management while ensuring data security and regulatory compliance.

Understand where AI fits into your business goals

Digital transformation serves as a crucial framework if you want the full potential of AI and related technologies.

It’s essential to have a strategic, holistic approach that aligns technology, people, and processes to drive innovation, efficiency, and sustainable growth.

To use AI effectively and efficiently, ensure you understand your business goals and objectives and where AI comes into play.

“There are businesses of all sizes that aren’t fully clear about their goals and objectives,” Dr Yazdi says. “What are they trying to achieve? Have a clear strategy and goals you’re looking to meet at the end of the year, and consider what AI can do to help.”

“It could be that your business needs a simple automation of processes from looking at your planning. In other industries, you may be looking at advanced AI using concepts such as machine learning or mimicking human behavior.”

“It all depends on your business goals—bring your information together and see what level of AI is needed to meet them.”

Dr. Yazdi says successful digital transformation is at the heart of artificial intelligence—centralizing, organizing, and structuring data.

“AI is based on information—you need data processing and analytics to provide real intelligence. Digitization is part of that—turning naked data into clean, on-demand data. You must upgrade your technology to convert data into knowledge and wisdom.”

Bring the right people in

Building or acquiring the necessary skills and capabilities is critical for AI technologies.

This may involve training existing staff, hiring new talent with specialized expertise, or partnering with technology providers.

Dr. Yazdi has a Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence and has experience extracting valuable insight from data analysis to help financial teams make informed and fast decisions. He’s used probability analysis, decision trees, neural networks, regression models, classification models, and advanced data visualization tools.

He says: “In healthcare, if you want a cure, you go to a doctor. To achieve a goal and get valuable information from data, you need data science.”

Employ data scientists who understand finance, Dr Yazdi advises: “They must know that business is very different from university life. They need a clear idea about the context of their work in their industry.”

“In finance, a good data scientist or AI developer won’t necessarily need the knowledge of a credit controller or accountant, but they must have a clear idea of what a credit controller or accountant will be thinking about.”

“Only if they understand what’s going to happen in the mind of a financial executive can they produce a result, knowledge of visualization that will benefit the CFO or CEO. You need to understand the context and processes of the finance back office.”

Read more: Everything you need to understand about AI

AI strategies for success

Businesses must adopt strategic approaches that go beyond implementing new technology. Here are 4 tips for ensuring the success of your digital transformation initiatives:

1. Define clear business goals

Start with a clear understanding of what you aim to achieve. Objectives should be specific, measurable, and aligned with your business strategy.

This clarity will guide selecting and implementing technologies that best meet these goals.

2. Understand how AI can meet business goals

A deep understanding of AI’s capabilities and potential applications is essential. Businesses should explore how AI can address specific challenges, optimize operations, and create new growth opportunities.

This understanding should inform the development of a strategic roadmap for AI integration.

3. Foster a culture of innovation and adaptability

Digital transformation requires a shift in organizational culture that embraces innovation, continuous learning, and adaptability.

Encouraging a mindset open to change and experimentation is crucial for navigating the uncertainties of digital transformation.

4. Focus on scalability and flexibility

Technologies should be implemented in a way that allows for scalability and flexibility. This ensures that systems can evolve in response to changing business needs and technological advancements.

Final thoughts

Integrating AI presents an unprecedented opportunity to enhance operational efficiency, foster innovation, and maintain a competitive edge.

However, the successful adoption of AI technologies requires more than just technical implementation.

It requires:

  • strategic alignment with business goals
  • adaptable organizational culture
  • a team capable of leveraging these technologies to their fullest potential.

The role of AI will undoubtedly evolve, becoming more ingrained in everyday processes and opening new avenues for innovation and growth.

With a clear vision and a strategic approach to AI adoption, your business will be well-positioned to capitalize on the opportunities presented by these technological advancements.

Taking advantage of AI is not just about adopting new technologies; it’s about reimagining the future of business.