Finance automation strategy: Can you answer these 5 questions?
While there is a lot of content around hot topics of finance digitization, RPA, and intelligent automation, it is easy to get lost within this technology-driven narrative. What can you do to get a clearer grasp on how to apply these tools to your finance processes?
This article by CFO Services' partner Aico, is designed to provide practical guidance for drafting a long-term finance automation strategy. It will ensure you ask the key questions while assessing various finance automation tools.
Article written by Andrejs Kučeruks
1. Do you know what to automate?
'Over 70% of the effort related to record-to-report currently focuses on recording data, reconciling data and closing the books'
Think of processes, not separate tasks. Tasks are managed by individuals, processes involve teams and have a greater impact on your overall finance management. Identify those processes, which are the core of your finance management output and have a long-tail impact.
For example, according to the report by Capgemini, 'over 70% of the effort related to record-to-report currently focuses on recording data, reconciling data and closing the books, including correcting errors and managing interfaces'. By applying intelligent automation to these processes, it is possible to significantly speed up your monthly financial reporting, but also release your team’s time for more meaningful work.
Map out these key processes within your organisation and determine what the core issues and missed opportunities are. This holistic process overview will help you to identify the bottlenecks and will lay solid ground for your long-term finance digitization and automation strategy.
Once you have identified priority processes and understand issues behind them, consider the following question: How can control and automation help improve overall process? Think of document creation, data validation, connectivity to your ERP systems, internal team communication, approval process, process tracking, and reporting.
If your processes still involve people manually collecting and preparing data to Excel sheets and uploading spreadsheets to you ERP system, it is high time to replace these manual tasks with automated processes to speed up your team’s work. As a by-product, quality and control will increase significantly, since processes can be monitored in real-time and easily audited afterwards.
2. Do you have purpose-built automation solution?
Apart from factors like high accuracy and speed, an automation solution, which is truly purpose-built for finance and accounting, should provide custom capabilities instead of only rule-based functions. No two organisational structures and finance management processes are the same. Add occasional ad-hoc tasks to the mix and customisation and high-functionality features become very clear and crucial. Tools built with finance know-how for finance professionals will meet these criteria.
A solution that promises to do everything is usually not good enough for anything and typically involves a lot of coding, risk assessment, and testing before safe deployment. In short, this characterises many generic RPA solutions, which can be applied to pretty much any transactional processes. This makes them very accessible, but also very limiting and restrictive. To illustrate this – think of analogy with a fork, knife, and spoon. All of them are designed to allow you to enjoy your meal, but their functionality is very different. It is enjoyable to eat a three-course restaurant meal with a set of fork, knife, and spoon. But if you are limited to just fork – chances are you will have to skip the starter soup and spend a lot of time battling the main course entrecote before reaching dessert.
Be specific about your needs and make sure the tools you select are purpose-built to control and automate those core finance processes that you have prioritised for your finance management output.
3. Are you in control of your finance automation processes?
A common risk associated with finance automation is losing control over automated tasks and having no or very limited ability to interfere and oversee the process.
One of the cornerstones of a successful finance automation strategy is an idea of having humans in the loop. Intelligent finance automation does just that – it augments the work of finance professionals to automated processing of the repetitive tasks, freeing up time but also illustrating the progress made, status of runs and highlighting discrepancies so that human accountants can focus on investigating the discrepancies and resolving them. Control, visibility, and oversight should always be in the hands of finance professionals.
An intelligent automation tool would have to include real-time dashboard reports, which allow users to track, for example, monthly close progress. Such reports give you an overview of completed and future tasks and thus ensure that your finance team is always in-sync with processes without having to spend time on mundane routine tasks and email correspondence to track status of tasks and responsibilities.
4. Does your automation solution have real-time ERP integration?
All your finance management tools should work in synergy to allow your team to work more efficiently. And a finance automation solution should not be an exception. It only pays off to bring on board another tool if you can seamlessly integrate it into the overall process. If you think of priorities – an ERP system is really at the heart of key transactions within any complex organisation. Naturally, efficiency of your finance operations will depend on how efficiently you can utilise your ERP system. So real-time ERP integrations with your key finance management tools is crucial to succeed at optimising your work.
Successful finance automation strategy should be about augmenting and synergising all your existing finance management tools for one highly efficient workflow. The winning automation solution should be able to integrate to multiple ERP systems or multiple instances of an ERP system in real time. Real-time integration will enable instant remediation actions, online validation of data, and at best it will hide the complexity of your system landscape. Things get complicated if you have multiple ERP systems or at least multiple accounting concepts. The winning automation solution should be able to cope with these complex requirements.
When dealing with accounting journal entries, a lot of time is wasted, because the input data like accounts, cost centres, and tax codes must be filled in and validated against ERP system rules manually. This process is also highly error-prone and often results with an invalid journal, which is then uploaded into the ERP system only to produce a validation error. As a result, even more time must be spent repeating the whole process again. Real-time integration with the ERP system would make the process much more efficient – by automatically retrieving data for your journals from external systems and validating data against your ERP rules the whole journal entry process is much faster and error-free.
5. Who is steering your finance automation strategy?
Claim ownership of your finance digitization and automation strategy and let your goals define your preferred set of tools, not the other way around. Finance digitization and automation capabilities are well ahead of generic task automation bots and finance professionals no longer need to solely rely on IT support to kickstart finance digitization revolution in the company. Intelligent automation solutions built specifically for finance professionals are here and now it is your turn to assess the right fit and make advantage of technology in your favour.