Automating financial services differs from other business areas due to a higher level of caution and concern. Although a large majority of people look to an algorithm for driving directions, interest and trust in financial technology is relatively low.
However, this only reflects apprehension over something companies have yet to understand. This is money we’re talking about and people find it hard to trust robots.
That being said, it’s hard to combat the statistics of success when it comes to automating finance operations. 73% of surveyed finance leaders believe automation is improving their function’s efficiency and giving staff more time for value-added tasks. Yet, 87% of CEOs say they need a more agile way to analyze financial and performance data to meet growth targets.
So, you see? There is a disconnect. Thus, it’s important to understand exactly what finance automation is in 2021 and how your business can get on board today!
What is Finance Automation?
Finance automation involves automating specific manual tasks which can be performed cheaper, and more efficiently, with artificial intelligence. It encompasses setting up a series of jobs (called workflows) and using technology to trigger pre-defined steps. This means aspects of the accounting process can be entirely handled without human intervention.
This finance transformation is about digitizing as many jobs as possible, while still maintaining agility and a high level of quality. It’s a type of machine learning that serves as a subset of process automation, and is gaining steam among companies and businesses in every industry.
In 2018 alone, RPA (robotic process automation) grew by a whopping 63% and continues to trend upward. That’s the software responsible for automating manual processes and it’s becoming increasingly popular.
Today, the RPA industry is projected to hit $2.9 billion by the end of 2021. This implies finance automation is no longer a distant possibility, but a total reality.
Which Processes Should Be Automated?
The first step to using finance and invoice automation is segregating the duties that can be automated, and require little to no human intervention.
Although some processes feel complex, with a little financial planning, your automation journey can include these financial services:
It’s crucial a business stays on top of the money owed to them by customers. This is particularly important if you’re providing ongoing goods or services. Finance automation involves the following AR tasks:
- Recurring invoices: Your customers automatically receive invoices generated on a pre-set schedule.
- Overdue payment reminders: The customer receives an automated reminder when an invoice is past due.
- Recurring credit card payments: The customer’s credit card payment is automatically processed on a predictable schedule.
You can also send automated messages encouraging customers to pay online and open up a self-service portal. Then there’s no need to manually input payment data or customer information.
According to a recent survey, 97% of small business owners stated they manage at least one area of business operations, with the most popular being payroll.
An ERP system that includes finance automation will enable a business to choose a payment schedule by employee class, and the program will do the rest. Tasks you can digitize include:
- Add all employees to the system along with banking data
- Set different wages and rates
- Automate how often payroll is processed
If anything changes or needs to be updated, the software is easy to tweak without any disruptions to the employee pay cycle.
Purchase Order Solutions
Automate procurement processes, payment reconciliation, and spending to facilitate purchase order management.
No more fumbling over spreadsheets for expenses and purchase orders. Many finance automation software platforms will issue a virtual credit card that syncs directly with accounting, so CFOs know exactly what they have purchased and who spent how much.
Reporting and Analysis
One of the top finance functions to benefit from automation is running consistent reports for in-depth analysis. The more you digitize this process, the easier it is to make fast business decisions, with real-time data.
Set reports to be delivered to specific staff, via certain channels, at different times of the day. You can even include numerous reports in a single email.
Automated finance analysis tools that offer APIs (application programming interfaces) make it easy for a business to consolidate all critical financial data from their connected apps and systems. The dashboard then tracks KPIs using existing data to showcase things like:
- Departmental performance
- Account status
- Cash flow
- And more…
Once you set it up, reports can be delivered to your inbox on a predictable schedule.
Neglecting to pay your debts on time can result in strained vendor relationships, late payments, and missed discounts. It’s all-around bad news for your reputation. Automation ensures that a business pays its bills on time.
This is especially the case with recurring payments. AP can simply set the date and amount and let the robot do the rest. If you need automatic reminders sent for payment, this can be set up as well.
Invoice capture, coding, approval, and payment are all tasks that can be automated. OCR (optical character recognition) is a technology that will scan an invoice and translate the image into text that can be processed through the AP software.
Finance professionals can benefit from the type of big data collection that is possible with automation. Data entry is a thing of the past.
Today, there are multiple types of scanning technologies for every document involved in the accounting process. This includes paperwork like:
- Packing slips
- Inspection reports
These tools will extract all the data and put it into a searchable, scannable format. When tax season rolls around, all your documents are uploaded and organized to save your accounting team time.
How to Set Up Finance Automation
Now that you’re convinced the accounting process is worthwhile, it’s time to set something up. How do you make it happen?
Here are a few steps to follow:
#1) Identify Your Current Processes
To start, figure out which of your accounting processes you want to automate. Not every task is built for automation, so consider things like:
- Repetitive and frequent jobs an employee is performing
- Don’t require a high level of personal connection or human touch
- Don’t involve a lot of mental energy or creativity
Jot down anything that meets these criteria and pick one as the top priority. Don’t attempt to automate everything at once.
For example, maybe your team spends too much time sending past due reminders. In this case, you’ll want to tackle automating notifications to replace the human effort.
#2) Evaluate Your Existing Setup
Look at the systems your business already has in place. Automation relies on technology and collaborative programs.
Dedicated automation platforms have recently hit the market to connect all your system before you automate. These platforms will link together existing apps and enable them to “talk” to each other:
#3) Assign a Stakeholder
Even though an automated process will run on its own, it’s still a wise idea to assign an individual or team to maintain the workflows and streamline operations. Have someone oversee the process as the “point person” to ensure everything is running smoothly and address any errors as they occur.
#4) Set up Workflows
Here’s the part where you roll up your sleeves and get to work. During the automation process, establishing workflows is key, as this is what will guide the technology moving forward.
Each workflow should have the following:
This is the first domino in the line. It’s a predefined event that kickstarts the automation.
Example: An invoice is received, payment is past due, or a document needs approval
What happens in response to the trigger.
Example: A reminder email is sent, an SMS is triggered, etc.
The intended goal of the trigger.
Example: The customer clicks the link in the reminder email and pays their bill.
This is a simple workflow. Some automated workflows can have several triggers and resulting actions. It relies on what you are trying to do and the goal you want to accomplish.
#5) Test the Workflows
Once you have everything set up, it’s time to test the workflows to ensure they work properly. This will give the finance team some added peace of mind when they step away from the robots to focus on more valuable work.
The Key Benefits of Finance Automation
Automating any business process has its advantages, but the benefits of finance and accounts payable automation create a unique opportunity for a full digital transformation.
Why has RPA and automation become such a high area of focus across industries? Let’s take a look at some of the impressive advantages of finance automation:
Increase Operational Efficiency
One of the largest benefits of finance automation is how much time a business can save. It creates a leaner supply chain with tighter controls. Digitizing common workflows means less time spent on tasks like data entry, bookkeeping, and other manual processes.
It allows you to optimize your schedule and dedicate extra time to business development. It empowers teams to think strategically and turn raw data into actionable insight.
Data entry is prone to human error and it can have dire consequences in finance. Especially if you don’t notice the mistake until journal entries are thrown off. The same can be said for when AP forgets a bill or it ends up buried on someone’s desk for approval.
These are simple human errors that don’t happen when you digitize processes. Robots never forget to pay anything. Reliable and tested workflows mean tasks are handled consistently, and by the book—every time. Automated accounting processes are at work, even when you aren’t.
Whenever you have more than one person performing a business task, things get done slightly differently. Everyone has their own way of doing things, even with standards in place.
Finance automation ensures consistency every step of the way. Computers perform the same tasks, the same way, every time the task is performed.
Different approaches and perspectives don’t cause time-consuming snags. With predefined steps in place, shared services are done the same way across all departments, tasks, teams, and customers.
You want your finance people to be more than number-crunchers. Every employee adds value when you remove tedious work.
Finance talent is capable of much more than manual data entry. Automation empowers teams to think strategically and turn raw data into actionable insights.
This technology enables leaders in finances to better:
- Understand and challenge business strategy
- Offer effective solutions
- Build stronger business relationships
- Ensure reporting, accounting, and controllership are under supervised
Freeing up teams to focus on strategy means there’s more room for growth and upward staff mobility. It practically guarantees a happier and more productive finance team.
Finance automation ensures more accurate reporting with in-depth and actionable insights. When you remove manual data entry, the information tends to be cleaner.
Today’s smart finance tools connect all of your applications and display data in one place. Not only does this streamline your sources of data, it allows people to spend more time analyzing information, rather than gathering it.
Even with highly detailed reports, you still need an accounting professional to convert them into game-changing action plans. Finance automation gives your staff the time to use the data more effectively.
Risks of Finance Automation
Despite the increasing success of finance automation, there are occasions in which it may not be the best fit for a business process. Consider these examples for common risks in automation:
Automation errors can reduce the accuracy of regulatory reports. This means a business can risk fines, sanctions, and even legal recourse.
Poorly designed bots can impact your IT infrastructure. Conversely, routine IT maintenance can affect automation solutions.
Morale may suffer when introducing automation because it is often misunderstood. “The robots are taking our jobs” is a real fear. Communication to employees must focus on higher-level work so they don’t worry about losing their jobs.
Poorly implemented finance RPA can result in inaccurate or incomplete reports, statements, and reputational damage. A business must make sure automation is set up correctly in the first place, to prevent this from happening down the road.
Badly designed automation solutions can slow down operations and increase processing errors. Lack of effective oversight or negligence of systems will lead to operational inefficiencies.
A business needs thoughtful change management, strong internal controls, consistent oversight, and well-built bots to properly introduce automation. Without preparation, RPA can cause more harm than good.
Is Finance Automation for You?
As with any strategic initiative, trying to find shortcuts to finance automation is unwise. A lot of time and attention must be invested in change management for RPA to reach its fullest potential. It should be highly stressed to staff that this is an enhancement to operations and not a means of replacing them.
As automation evolves, it continues to improve the accuracy of financial analysis and forecasting. Artificial intelligence should be viewed as a positive net motivator that will make everyone’s job a little easier, but will not eliminate the need for strategic human efforts.
Digitizing finance processes requires a combination of robotics with other intelligent automation technologies. Gartner research has shown that 60% of earnings calls are spent on Q&A. Finance robotics can scrutinize these calls to detect lies, hidden sentiment, and make conclusions that will affect investment decisions.
Today is the future of finance. Automation is being embraced by the C-suite, making finance leaders and CFOs the most trusted source for data insights and cross-departmental collaboration.
CFOs now play a key role in steering an organization to digitally-enabled growth. With finance automation, strategic decision-making has never been easier. This means a business can either embrace workflow automation or be left in the dust.