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Transforming the finance function through RPA

As CFOs prepare for the future, robotic process automation (RPA) presents a clear and sustainable avenue to transforming finance. Loreal Jiles, director of research – digital technology and finance transformation at the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), writes


As I outline in a recent research paper, Transforming the Finance Function with RPA, RPA can manage low-complexity finance and accounting tasks like bookkeeping, payroll, data migration and entry, daily profit and loss reporting, reconciliations and control testing.

This frees up professionals to focus on higher-level tasks like strategy formulation, business development, strategic decision support and risk management.

There are benefits to be gained for both organisations and individual professionals as they climb the skillset ladder, but many business and IT teams struggle to actually implement RPA strategies. In a survey of more than 400 organisations, Deloitte found that 53% of respondents had already begun their RPA journeys and 19% intended to begin within the next two years. Yet only 3% of these organisations had actually ‘scaled their digital workforce’ beyond 50 robots.

This low scaling rate exists despite the wide-reaching applicability of RPA technology, affordability of licenses and low barrier to entry for skill development, so what are the barriers that need to be overcome to achieve RPA integration and transformation? And what are the steps that need to be taken?

My research found numerous common barriers to RPA scaling, ranging from lack of executive sponsorship to insufficient resources and governance. Navigating through these organisational obstacles is necessary for businesses – especially small or mid-sized enterprises where finance teams are overburdened with routine, repetitive tasks – if they are going to find ways to enhance efficiency and cut costs while also investing in their staff rather than just releasing them. This is crucial at a time when the economic situation is bleak, but companies are reluctant to part with valuable talent. Accordingly, businesses need to take the following three actions to successfully scale RPA:

Establish governance

The single most important prerequisite to a successful RPA program is governance. An RPA team can have a multimillion-dollar budget and the best developers on the globe, but without governance, failure is the most likely scenario.

In December 2018, five key risk areas for RPA implementation were identified by Deloitte that still ring true today: operational, financial, regulatory, organisational and technology. To mitigate the risks that RPA implementation introduces, governing new digital teammates is a must. This takes place in much the same way as policies are written to govern processes executed by humans.

Further, in addition to governing bots, governance must be established for the humans involved in RPA implementation. This involves creating governance documentation for employee use, whether in the form of slide decks, documents or quick reference guides. This governance codification serves as a necessary foundation for successful RPA integration.

Do not compromise on resource quality

Intelligent automation cannot scale without qualified workers to implement the technology. Organisations choosing to invest in their own staff to progress implementation will need to allow adequate time for development of their teams, without rushing them into tangible delivery, and will need to have a quality control process in place – code, peer, control, business, and digital security reviews – to prevent poorly developed workflows from introducing unmitigated risk into operational processes.

Without enough capable resources to prepare and develop automation solutions, the process backlog can be very long with strong business cases and still deliver little to no value. Investing in these resources is key to any transformation.

Automate the right processes

Despite the breadth of process areas with RPA applicability, all processes are not created equal. Consequently, all finance and accounting processes are not strong RPA candidates. While good RPA candidates should be mature, well defined, and well documented, it is worth noting that processes that do not check all these boxes may still be great candidates; they may simply require more prep work – documentation and standardisation – prior to automating.

When automation teams begin playing the role of process-optimisation teams, it can dilute the quick implementation metric expected of RPA. The automation itself is generally quick; it is the understanding, definition and agreement of the process that often lengthen the timeline. Teams should take care to define and clearly communicate their scope along the continuum.

RPA offers great promise to the accounting and finance profession, but it is not a technology that will emerge and be adapted organically. It will take conscious strategy and effort, and these are the three minimal steps CFOs and other finance leaders need to take to make that leap.

 

 

 

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