Authored by: Loreal R. Jiles
We are living in a defining moment in history when businesses need a reformed approach—with emerging technology maturing and consumers expecting a faster pace of delivery—teams are overworked, and agility has become a mandatory requirement. As a result, the role of finance and accounting is evolving to support these tremendous changes.
In 2019, the IBM Institute for Business Value published the report “The enterprise guide to closing the skills gap” in which it indicated a staggering “120 million workers in the world’s 12 largest economies might need to be retrained/reskilled in the next three years as a result of intelligent/AI-enabled automation.”
As CFOs implement plans to prepare their teams for the future, finance and accounting professionals are under pressure to enhance their value offering and reduce costs while acquiring new skills.
Emerging digital technologies provide the finance and accounting function with a path to fulfill these objectives while meeting business demand for advanced analytics, efficient operations, and strategic decision support.
Robotic process automation
Robotic process automation (RPA) presents a clear and sustainable avenue to transforming the finance function.
Although several digital tools can be leveraged to automate finance and accounting processes, RPA is currently recognised as one of the few emerging technologies capable of automating a significant amount of finance and accounting end-to-end processes.
In a recent RPA webinar hosted by IMA, attended by nearly 1,500 finance and accounting professionals from all around the world, 34 percent of participants acknowledged RPA would be the emerging technology with the most significant impact on the profession in the next three years.
In India, RPA is bound to create new sets of job opportunities for people.
According to a recent report, the RPA market in India will grow at a CAGR of above 20 percent during the forecast period of 2019-2025.
The report says the RPA market in the country is driven by the increasing demand for automated accounting and process management.
Further, to ensure automated transaction processing improves over time, RPA vendors are also focusing on developing best-in-class intelligent process automation bots that learn as they work.
Businesses that have incorporated finance and accounting professionals into their RPA program have reaped the benefits of more robust automation solutions, less costly implementations, and improved employee satisfaction.
Unlike what some might think, RPA at scale—or fully-leveraged—could be a perfect solution for a small or mid-sized business with overworked finance and accounting teams needing relief and leaders seeking to elevate their limited resources’ offering.
By implementing RPA, start-ups can reassign their teams to more pressing matters once their schedules have been cleared of repetitive work. It could equally serve as a monumentally transformational initiative in larger enterprises where opportunities in other parts of the organisation may be brought to light.
Specific to finance and accounting departments, team members who learn of this technology, proactively train staff on RPA, and/or lead RPA programs, tend to gain more benefits, both professionally and organizationally, than those on the receiving end of automation solutions.
Organizations with finance and accounting functions that are equipped with business professionals who are cross-functionally trained find themselves far ahead of their peers with more time to focus on higher value-added tasks.
The historical nature of the finance and accounting function’s role dictates that many of its processes are repetitive and rule-based—two of the most critical criteria in identifying good RPA candidates. Therefore, it is not surprising that most RPA implementations begin in the finance and accounting department.
As RPA is an emerging technology with one of the lowest barriers to entry, the impact of RPA on the finance and accounting function is two-fold:
- Finance and accounting processes will be automated with RPA
- Finance and accounting professionals can upskill with RPA
Misconceptions about RPA technology cross several extremes—from “It will automate all of our jobs” and “Only IT can implement it” to “RPA couldn’t possibly do what I do” and “RPA has no applicability to finance and accounting processes.”
Each of these misconceptions can be dispelled through knowledge of what RPA is and the actual capability of the technology.
Most RPA software are made up of three primary components: the bots, a bot manager, and a workflow design module.
The bots perform processes, the bot manager enables scheduling and allocation of developed processes, and the workflow design module is where processes are developed.
Although it is tempting to say—and is widely said—during an RPA implementation, people do not create bots. The truth is, they develop the processes that bots will perform.
In organizations that have made progress along the RPA journey, they operate in an environment where finance and accounting professionals work alongside human and digital co-workers. They receive data from bots and supply inputs to them for processing. This is a different world—the technology to make this a reality already exists and is currently in place in many enterprises.
As RPA vendors strengthen their native offerings and progress with integrating technology partnerships, the complexity of the processes digital teammates can perform with intelligent RPA will undoubtedly increase. And even though widespread democratisation of RPAis the concept of a bot for every employee, may still be far off, digital teammates are already on the payroll and leaders are gladly assigning them finance and accounting tasks.
Welcome to the new era of man and machine!
—Loreal R. Jiles, Director of Research – Digital Technology & Finance Transformation, Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). The views expressed are personal.