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RPA: creative freedom to accountants

ACCOUNTANTS spend days, weeks even, wrangling thousands of spreadsheets and manually reconciling data - even though new technology now enables the close to be completed more accurately, with less effort, and with significantly reduced risk of error.

One of these noteworthy technologies is robotic process automation (RPA), and it's one of the most impactful innovations to happen to the close since the invention of green-bar paper. RPA automates manual tasks, manages workflow, and standardises the close process across complex organisations and IT landscapes.

RPA applies the combination of intelligent workflows, business rules, triggered operations, and process scheduling to shift repetitive tasks from people to technology. It frees accountants from the drudgery of manual work, and also benefits the business overall by enabling a truly smart close.

According to the 2018 Deloitte Global RPA Survey, 53 per cent of its respondents have already embarked on the RPA journey and a further 19 per cent plan to adopt the technology in the next two years. If adoption continues at its current level, RPA will have achieved near-universal adoption within the next five years. In Asia-Pacific, the RPA market size is estimated to be US$2.9 billion by 2021 and is projected to grow 203 per cent by 2021.

Organisations utilising RPA have:

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  • Automated accounting and finance processes up to 80 per cent
  • Increased accounting productivity by 50 per cent
  • Improved shared service centre efficiency by as much as 75 per cent

Yet many still resist this technology, as evidenced by the pace at which Finance is adopting it: Slowly. Glacially.

Today, many traditional bookkeeping tasks are already being performed by AI. Accounts payable and receivable AI handles much of the work of initiating payments and matching purchase orders. Automated data entry and data categorisation help accountants analyse broad financial trends more quickly.

RPA has reduced audit and contractual processing times from several months to a few weeks. And furthermore, larger firms that are taking advantage of AI are outpacing smaller accounting offices through increased efficiency and higher level services.

With that in mind, the advent of RPA and other advanced automation technologies, rather than ushering in the robot rebellion, should actually enable accountants to finally do what they're meant to be doing: performing analysis, advising the business, and providing impactful financial data to shape their organisations' future. Accountants can focus on all of this while still closing the books faster and more accurately than ever before.

Financial automation software is able to build on an RPA foundation to streamline the financial close with specific conditional workflow and automatic scheduling - automating the repetitive tasks that are a poor use of highly skilled resources, so accountants can focus on value-adding activities.

By combining the latest in RPA and financial close intelligence, the whole process provides powerful efficiency gains and improves trust in the financial close. This enables accounting organisations to drive global standardisation while maintaining a degree of local flexibility.

Modern finance organisations are moving to process standardisation and financial automation to make the best use of talent and be more strategic. For instance, industry leaders such as Deloitte, Philips, Cargill, and Procter & Gamble have automated as much as 70 per cent of financial close tasks through self-service and standardised financial close automation.

Take it from Deloitte, who say that automation not only keeps their data accurate and safe, but also provides them with very clear processes. The leading professional services firm has also benefited from a clear, documented workflow that included RPA so they could avoid any delays or confusion. Organisations will gain the confidence of stronger internal controls and automated, audit-ready processes that improve productivity and standardisation.

Based on IDC Financial Insights last year, ANZ Bank, DBS Bank, OCBC Bank, UOB, ICICI Bank, ICICI Lombard and Prudential Life Assurance are among ten financial services institutions in Asia-Pacific that are having some early success in adopting RPA initiatives.

Take United Overseas Bank (UOB) as an example. In 2017, the bank introduced its two "virtual employees" - robots named Amy and Eve - to handle repetitive and time-consuming jobs such as data processing. IDC also estimates that RPA will be in use in 40 per cent of Asia-Pacific banks and insurance companies by 2020 - out of this percentage, 25 per cent will be deploying cognitive technologies for intelligent decision making.

Leading companies are embracing robots because they know that staying on top today requires working smarter and ensuring access to real-time data.

In today's frenetic, always-on business world, RPA is the key to both. RPA tools reduce risk, increase accuracy and improve visibility, all while freeing accountants from the mind-numbing drudgery of manual close activities. Accountants are then free to focus on what really matters to the health and wealth of the business: forecasting, analysis, and strategy.

  • The writer is Senior Vice-President, Asia Pacific & Japan, at BlackLine


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