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How finance teams can embrace automation and reduce tedious tasks

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Although there has been a lot of discussion around digitising the finance function, many businesses are still at an early stage when it comes to using technology to increase efficiency, value and insight. Your company might be one of them.

It’s an area in which, as the CFO, you need to take the lead, as you manage and own a lot of the information that will feed these efforts.

Automation holds the key to building the finance function of the future, as it removes the need for employees to spend hours collecting data and ensuring its quality.

These tasks can be done digitally, in a sense creating a digital workforce that can perform these tasks. This can leave your staff with more time to spend on analysis and reporting.

But what are the main concerns CFOs should when it comes to building and integrating a digital workforce?

Sultan Mahmood is a partner at PwC. He helps clients transform businesses through the use of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and blockchain.

Mahmood shared insights from his work to an audience of financial leaders at London’s CFO Agenda. The event brought together executives from companies such as car manufacturers Honda and BMW, and HR consulting firm Mercer to speak on a range of topics that are important to finance teams.

He said: “With automation, we’re talking about using machines to basically augment and, at times, replace human work. From a work perspective, we’re looking at every job or activity that can be automated through some sort of machine capability.

“Intelligent automation is about how you use business-led efforts to use machines in augmenting human labour with digital labour to optimise workflows.”

Automation vs artificial intelligence

It’s important to understand that automation is not the same as artificial intelligence.

Automation follows pre-programmed rules to run processes, but is only a part of AI. AI is about moving in a direction where it’s about getting machines to replicate human behaviour and make their own decisions.

However, this is a different level to AI software, which displays self-learning capability through machine learning.

Mahmood said: “AI is such as big word and uses a bunch of technologies. But if you’re talking about automation, you’re talking about things like machine learning and natural language processing, and how these can be used to optimise processes.”

Automation is certainly not new. After all, with Excel spreadsheets, macros are designed to automate tasks that are considered repetitive and tedious.

However, automation has evolved and we now have Repetitive Process Automation (RPA) – the use of software with AI or machine-learning capabilities to handle high-volume repeatable tasks.

RPA is a systematic way of automating with controlled governance, while a compatible technology in process orchestration ensures workflows are managed throughout process lifecycles.

Mahmood said: “We’re at an intelligent automation stage where you’re optimising business processes through automation technology such as RPA, machine learning or NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Processing) to carry out activities.

“After this stage comes autonomous intelligence, which is basically processes operating themselves without any human intervention.”

Understand what automation can do for your business

If your business is looking at automation, Mahmood pointed out that it’s important to thoroughly understand your processes. “It’s about understanding your business processes and your pain points,” he said.

For example, the finance function has to deal with lots of repetitive and tedious tasks, which are ripe for automation. Your company’s finance staff might be spending a lot of their time gathering data rather than analysing it, making them human ‘automation agents’.

As the CFO, you should look at ways that the finance team can take the robot out of the human, letting their systems do this robotic work so they can spend more time on useful tasks.

Areas where RPA could free up time include:

  • Bank reconciliation
  • Sales ordering
  • Invoicing
  • Financial reporting
  • External reporting
  • Inventory management
  • Tax planning
  • Accounting.

RPA could save time for your finance team, automating tasks such as data input and output, reconciliation and data quality management. Automated solutions can work 24/7 without the need of a break, while reducing errors, and can be cheaper than having a person do that role.

Mahmood said: “Automation is an activity that can deliver results in weeks rather than months or years, so it can suit businesses that want fast payback.

“With automation you need to think about process, re-engineering and simplification. But you don’t need to re-engineer the entire organisation before embarking on an automation programme. There are quick wins through projects you can embark on pretty fast.”

People and culture must be at the heart of an automation strategy

The second step is to make sure people and culture feature prominently within your automation business strategy. It’s important for your company’s business leaders to make sure they’re transparent about the automation strategy, and what it means for the workforce.

“With automation, we’re talking about digital labour and a digital workforce, which will impact human labour,” Mahmood said. “And as part of that, a question we need to address is, are people and culture at the heart of our technology?

“People have to be part of an automation strategy because automation works at such a detailed level, that most organisations won’t have processes documented at this level.

“You need to involve the people in coming up with ideas for what areas can be automated. Having people and culture involved in developing your automation strategy is really important.”

Mahmood described how PwC has embarked on a large-scale automation programme, ensuring people understood what automation means, what it is, how to identify it, and how to design it.

He said: “We’ve put a lot of people through digital upscaling, increasing the skills of our employees. You get two main benefits. First, your employees are involved in the automation journey and they accept it as a cultural change effort.

“The second is that over time, they will cope with their role changing as automation is implemented. They must understand that might be doing new jobs that currently don’t exist right now.”

Make sure automation efforts are sustainable

Automation isn’t a process than can be left on autopilot. Mahmood said there are lot of examples in businesses where the initial excitement around automation has fizzled out. This is because it’s relatively easy to start with automation but more difficult to scale.

If you’re a business leader thinking about automation in your company, you may want expertise to answer questions such as:

  • How do you choose your automation projects?
  • What tools are you going to make available to business users?
  • How are projects supported and monitored?
  • What regular requirements will affect data handling?

There will be some cases where automation looks like it will obviously deliver benefits. But when businesses start scaling up, they’ll run into complexities caused by the interconnection of people, process and technology.

Only by solving this conundrum can your business form successfully automated end-to-end digital experiences for employees and customers, and a data-driven intelligent enterprise.

Mahmood explained: “You need to start looking at the connections between people, process and technology.

“We often say that the best automation will require process improvement, because you might need to improve your processes too for automation to work best, and vice versa.

“And If you’ve automated your processes, you also need to consider what this means for the people as well.”

This means taking a ‘holistic’ approach to automation, which requires not just a push from the centre, but a pull from employees in what PwC calls ‘citizen-led automation’.

Mahmood said: “The centre does provides some governance framework around automation and so on, but the business needs to empower employees to innovate as well at the same time.

“If we’ve got people who understand finance and macros, they can write automation as well. It’s not that complicated.

“It’s about unleashing the potential that exists in both your employee, together with a centrally lead initiative. Combine all of that and businesses can really capitalise on full automation potential.”

How automation can save time and costs

Mahmood described an example of how a law firm that works in property law now automates a repetitive process with RPA that saves the work of 30 paralegals.

He said: “The business sends out what is called a sellers’ information pack when selling land to potential buyers. The buyers will come back with a number of queries on these packs.

“It’s the job of 30 expensive legal people to read email queries, go to the information pack, find the answers, compose a response email and send these to the seller.

“The process is fully automated now. The questions go through to an automation engine that uses a combination of technologies to answer the queries around them.”

He also described how automation has saved another law firm from having to spend money on people who were ‘cash matching’ for them – matching returns if a bond portfolio to future capital outlays.

Mahmood said there’s more than one bottom line for automation. “Automation starts as a cost play, and it does save costs as well as increase revenue and profit,” he said.

“But it quickly becomes a customer service play – it moves from being able to do things more efficiently, to doing something in a much more responsive manner.”

Top tips to incorporate automation in your business

1. Understand what kind of automation you need

Every business is different, and it’s important to get best value for the automation you implement. With RPA, it’s important to understand what variation is most suitable for your business needs.

There are different types of RPA you can look at – from variations which help businesses automate daily tasks, to more advanced types which combine with machine learning to perform more complex actions in response to human interaction.

2. Start automation in the right departments

You’ll know from a bit of analysis which departments have a lot of manual processes that RPA could help with.

Automation could certainly help in back-office processes in the finance department, while depending on your operation it could automate processes in areas like marketing, legal, sales and the supply chain.

Aim for quick wins and build an RPA foundation in areas like governance, allowing you to visualise a future roadmap.

3. Ask if automation makes economic sense

When looking at the opportunities for automation within departments, you should question how economically viable these opportunities are for the business. For instance, you should certainly find out what the return on investment for RPA would be.

Get the relevant stakeholders in from the departments in question and try and create a business case.

4. Get management buy-in

You need to get information straight from stakeholders on what they understand when it comes to RPA and how it would be able to benefit them.

You and other members of the leadership team should help the wider business understand what RPA can do and how it could make their working lives easier, letting them focus on more important, less repetitive tasks.

5. Work at the right speed

As RPA is a technology, the IT team can provide technical expertise and to make sure the implementation runs smoothly and at the right speed.

The technical leadership need to adopt a strategy of starting small, getting the business used to the technology, and expanding it out when the business gets used to the changes.

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