As a qualified Accountant I worked for 20 years in finance and accounting and look back with little fondness on the burdensome administrative tasks and multiple spreadsheets that needed to be manually maintained in order to complete even the most basic reporting tasks.
Whilst a necessary evil, it was inefficient, frustrating and clearly impacted the time we could spend on strategic and higher value accounting work.
With an increasing reliance on finance professionals to provide a proactive, strategic function that supports change and unlocks new opportunities, letting manual data processes dominate your resource such as checking and chasing information, can be a business risk.
Thankfully finance professionals in 2020 are blessed with access to powerful, accessible and cost-effective software that can drastically reduce manual processes and streamline the way you, your department and organisation operate.
The Robots are coming
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a term that is increasingly becoming common language with the ongoing focus on digital transformation in business and public sector organisations.
Whilst it may sound complex and even slightly unnerving, it essentially boils down to identifying repetitive administrative tasks and then configuring software to replicate the capturing, storing and processing of that information.
If the right business logic has been applied, the software can then repeat the task over and over at speed, without human intervention and with minimal risk of errors.
It’s increasingly being applied to all areas of operations, from automated HR recruitment and onboarding processes to customer order processing and tracking.
Finance too is ripe for this kind of transformation with huge potential for key accounting tasks to be automatically completed based on pre-configured rules, tailored to your specific requirements.
This applies to high-volume duties, avoiding the time-consuming manual keying and re-keying of information or the need to log in to multiple systems.
And while streamlining actions through RPA increases the speed of basic actions, it also maintains greater accuracy and reduces the potential for compliance and governance issues.
The future is now
The advent of highly customisable cloud-based ERP software such as Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 Finance and Business Central means RPA is no longer the sole preserve of large corporates.
Instead it presents an opportunity for organisations of all sizes to apply the principles of automation to practical applications in whichever way and whatever scale suits them.
There are several specific areas it can automate across finance including:
Accounts payable: Automatically transfer data from PDF invoices and produce a duplicate copy for your records, removing the need for administrative manual processes whilst ensuring regulatory compliance.
Accounts receivable: Maintains customer data, credit approvals and enters receipts or payments assigned to specific invoices. RPA can also be used to automatically issue late invoice payment notices.
Financial reporting: Reconciles and inputs data from multiple departments and operations, perfect for auditing accounts.
Quotes for new business opportunities: Organisations that supply quotes to potential clients can utilise bots to provide accurate supplier comparisons and quickly arrive at a price.
Employee payroll and operational finance functions: Most organisations already have automatic payroll payments in place, but RPA can also automatically apply sales commission and employee expenses whilst generating a report for auditing purposes. Similarly, invoices for clients are updated based on potential additional support provided on a monthly basis or reduced if services were not delivered or postponed due to unforeseen circumstances.
Cost allocation: Automatically merge data from several sources (spreadsheets, emails etc) into a file that can be uploaded to your ERP system.
Regulatory reporting: RPA can provide pre-populated, accurate reports that can be accessible at a moment’s notice. Perfect for regulatory reporting or the auditing of accounts
Cash Flow – use predictive analytics to accurately forecast cash forecasts.
The bigger picture
Whilst the real-world application of RPA has the potential to quickly deliver step-change in efficiency, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
When combined with other advancements in areas such as AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning, the benefits can be amplified further.
Information passing through automated processes can be instantly analysed, spotting issues, identifying trends and even predicting potential future organisational needs and requirements.
When combined with human judgement this can dramatically improve the quality and speed of decision making.
Over the coming years, a lean, data-driven, modern finance function will quickly move from a ‘nice to have’ to a business-critical issue.
For many, the opportunity to streamline and automate processes is held back by inflexible legacy ERP technology.
With RPA a practical reality and cloud-solutions making the barriers to adoption lower than ever…it might be the right time to embrace the robots.
Richard Baxter is a former Group Financial Controller and qualified Accountant. Richard is Finance and Applications Director at technology consultancy and certified Microsoft Gold Partner, Tisski.