Written by Loreal R. Jiles, Director of Research – Digital Technology & Finance Transformation, IMA
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 may need to be retrained/reskilled in the next 3 years as a result of intelligent/AI-enabled automation.” Perhaps more astonishing is how ill-prepared executives believe their countries and companies are to offer the development that millions of workers will require.
We are living in a defining moment in history, when businesses need a reformed approach, emerging technology is maturing, consumers and markets across the globe are 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 too is evolving to support these tremendous changes.
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 fulfilling these objectives while meeting business demand for advanced analytics, efficient operations, and strategic decision support. Robotic process automation (RPA), specifically, presents a clear and sustainable avenue to transforming the finance function.
Although there are several digital tools that can be leveraged to automate finance and accounting processes, RPA is currently recognized as one of few emerging technologies most 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% of participants acknowledged RPA will be the emerging technology with the greatest impact on the profession in the next three years.
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 midsized 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 organization 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 important 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 twofold:
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 is 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 develop bots. 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 through widespread democratization of RPA, 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.