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Driving finance transformation with robotics
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) has become a buzz in the business community and the heart of transforming the finance function.
Described as a revolution in transforming the finance function, RPA is a technology that may be effectively used to replace manual and repetitive finance tasks, improve process and cost efficiency, as well as result in data quality amongst other benefits.
Tools for RPA could have simple applications, such as automatic responses to emails, to more complex uses such as “bots” to automate jobs in an enterprise resource planning system.
RPA may also be combined with emerging trends in cognitive technologies such as machine learning, computer vision and chatbots to further automate and enhance value chains.
“The business cases for these often move beyond simple productivity savings and into design of new services and experiences for internal and external customers,” said Chris Lewin, Executive Director and leader of Deloitte’s Analytics and Cognitive practice in Southeast Asia.
In the view of professional services firm PwC, RPA is creating a fundamental shift within finance - in flipping the operating models through its potential for cost reduction and efficiency, while redefining the role of “humans” in routine transaction processing, with a transition towards more strategic areas of the business.
“Besides the traditional accounting operations, RPA is also having an impact on audit, tax planning, and statutory and regulatory reporting processes,” said Mr Ashwani Kohli, Director, Intelligent Automation, PwC South East Asia Consulting.
He said many organisations that have implemented RPA to support the enterprise-wide digital journey have realised that the ability to combine various technologies will lead to greater benefits.
“To improve data standards and quality, RPA is an efficient and affordable digital initiative, which will lay the foundations for more advanced cognitive technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI),” he said.
Observers say integrating AI into RPA to create Intelligent Process Automation is where RPA is heading from a technology perspective, but fundamentally the driver of any digital transformation is about how it integrates into the business.
“This is about getting the business process design right, and managing appropriately the ‘teamwork’ between RPA bots and human decision makers,” said Professor Michael Davern, Professor of Accounting & Business information Systems, at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Increased automation often brings about fears of job losses but Prof Davern said these worries may be misplaced.
“It is critical that employees see RPA as a tool that enables them to do their jobs better, albeit with some role change, rather than replacing them,” said Prof Davern.
“Fears of RPA replacing workers are as unfounded as earlier concerns that computerised spreadsheets would replace accountants. RPA is about automating tasks not entire processes,” said Prof Davern, citing an upcoming report produced for CPA Australia titled Technology and the Future of the Profession.
There are some challenges when embarking on the finance transformation journey, according to PwC.
The adoption rate of new technology may be slow as people resist on fears that their jobs will be made redundant.
Organisations are also always aiming for best practice when implementing RPA, which could be a moving target and they risk falling into a “trap of chasing”.
“Some set their sights on what they perceive as best practice and stop evolving once they have reached there, or they hold back too long on any transformation, waiting for the other shoe to drop. An innovative culture which looks for continual improvement will deliver the best results,” said Mr Ivan Phuah, Director, Digital Finance Transformation, PwC South East Asia Consulting.
There is also the question of what to do with the excess capacity created.
Old roles will change and staff will need support in upskilling themselves, both digitally and in soft skills, to enable them to remain relevant and continue adding value to the business.
Organisations will also have to consider the ability to deliver quick wins to drive engagement and momentum along the journey, and to keep these efforts up throughout the project.
To succeed, RPA programmes should be integrated with the enterprise-wide digitalisation journey.
“It needs to be a holistic programme, where the Business Case, Automation Delivery, Governance, Risk & Compliance, Operating Model, and Change Management work like cogs in a wheel,” said Mr Phuah.
“Change management is the key which brings it all together. People need to be taught how to change and transform themselves and the organisation more effectively,” he added.
Prof Davern said successful implementation of RPA needs to be driven by the business.
“While support and buy-in from an organisation’s IT function is important, RPA has to first and foremost be driven by the business and the business need that RPA seeks to address. Whether RPA is introduced as a refinement of existing processes, or whether processes are completely re-designed to exploit RPA is a key decision, and process owners are the key stakeholder here,” he said.
In Deloitte’s view, an intimate knowledge of an organisation’s business is key to the success of any transformation project.
“Product vendors will deliver exciting new capabilities, and design or implementation partners can provide a roadmap and project plan, but how effective they are depends on the foundation of the detailed understanding of the current business,” said Mr Lewin.
Managing RPA projects well, starting from the design phase, will also set the foundation for success.
“Being ready and able to re-engineer processes so that they play to the strengths of both humans and machines. Previous processes can be ‘Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) driven’ with humans as the ‘glue’ between big systems. Process layer technologies like RPA offer an opportunity to redesign roles that are more impactful and engaging,” said Mr Lewin.
This article is part of a series in collaboration with CPA Australia to share knowledge on accounting, business and finance issues.