In need for a paradigm shift

Alexander Van Caeneghem and Kristoff Temmerman (TriFinance) on the future of RPA and AI in finance

Volvo Cars is at the forefront of robot process automation (RPA), as we can read in this interview with Anton Edlund, Volvo Car Group automation manager. But when it comes to digital offerings in finance, TriFinance also has its say. Alexander Van Caeneghem, business unit leader CFO Services, and Kristoff Temmerman, business unit leader Transition & Support Gent, share their insights. Key to success is a real paradigm shift: only when people are at ease with digitazition, the real added value of digitization will become obvious.

The potential of RPA in finance is tremendous, if we read Anton Edlund’s interview. ‘As long as something is rule-based and repetitive, you can have it done by a robot’, Edlund says. His ‘Intelligent Process Automation Team’ is at the forefront of RPA. Edlund: ‘We try to automate as many manual tasks as possible within finance, to support our teams around the world. Think of administrative matters, but also more complex matters such as monthly and annual closures, reconciliation, reporting, etc.’

‘Those two conditions are indeed a strict minimum’, says Alexander Van Caeneghem, business unit leader CFO-Services at TriFinance ‘But we actually look at more criteria before we start to think about robotizing financial processes. You need large amounts of well structured data, and the processes should be stable, standardized and mature.’ So much to say, not every financial process is fit for RPA. Kristoff Temmerman, business unit leader Transition & Support Gent, adds: ‘Sofar, we encounter only few early adopters. Yet, in an early phase, RPA can take care of standardized financial transactions, giving finance people ample chance to add value, such as communicating to the business and controlling. Thanks to RPA, finance can become a real business partner.’

Paradigm shift

RPA could lead to a real paradigm shift in finance. As more and more financial processes will end up being robotized, the paradigm of old-school ‘human’ efficiency becomes less relevant. Van Caeneghem: ‘Labour and its concomitant costs will play a less important role, and consequently RPA will provoke a new phenomenon: ‘tech-shoring’, as opposed to off-shoring. Typical repetitive tasks no longer need to be outsourced to shared service centers in countries with low labor costs, but stay inside the local companies, decentralized or in shared services, performed by robots’

RPA being in the scope of more and more CFO’s, the question about the potential of Artificial Intelligence remains to be answered. Edlund, in his interview, is clear: ‘‘First walk, then run. You must first learn and then do it. Machine learning is only ‘learning’, not ‘doing’, as the term itself indicates. It is still early to put full machine learning in a robot, but in the future we may not need robots anymore because AI not only learns more but also does it itself. In short: we keep a close eye on AI, but first want to see what it will learn.’

Van Caeneghem seems to remarkably agree with his scepsis: ‘AI mostly deals with self learning systems, rather than rule-based systems. In an even further stage, AI will make systems that can take decisions on their own. But until now, I have not seen many potential business and process applications yet. RPA is probably an intermediate step on the road to AI, but the road is long. And winding. Optimizing your processes remains crucial’ Temmerman adds: ‘AI is only viable when it is fed by humans. It must learn from people and their processes. And the quality of the master data should be top. That is, in my opinion, why we haven’t come far with AI yet.’

Human offerings

Having this knowledge in mind, TriFinance is pulling the card of digital, for sure. It does so from a holistic point of view and aims for customized and sustainable solutions. Van Caeneghem: ‘We are offering a broad spectrum of digital services, covering functional, methodological, technical and human components. Being a human-centric company, we put a lot of emphasis on the latter. We help our customers in translating their digital strategy into real-life ways of working and prepare processes, people and organizations for the future. Digital processes becoming an integral part of daily finance routines, it is quintessential to have your people make the right mindshift. What we do is helping customers to cope with change and learn to improve their processes. We facilitate transformation.’

Governance is a crucial part of the TriFinance digital offerings: how do you deal with digital transformation, how do you help your people deal with it, how do you help them optimize? Van Caeneghem: ‘Governance about digital transformation indeed is key when implementing new digital ways of working, be it RPA or AI. What are roles and responsibilities, how do you govern risks and controls, how do you create process transparency, what is the RPA operating model, how do you set up quality control management, ...: good governance is a conditio sine qua non for success in RPA.’ As a human-centered company, TriFinance also wants to invests in its own people (‘furthering people for better performance in do-how’) when it comes to automation. Temmerman: ‘maybe, this is where we can offer the biggest added-value. By furthering our consultants in the field of RPA and AI, our own people can become prophets at our clients’ premises. They may spread the gospel that will eventually lead to well fostered automation projects.’
‘In the end, robots can actually make people more human’, concludes Van Caeneghem. ‘It will allow people to leave an arena in which they are doomed to remain inferior, as they are slow, not very efficient and error prone.’ Again, a human mindshift will be the prerequisite for digitization to be a real and long-lasting game changer.

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Alexander Van Caeneghem Blue Chip Boutique Leader
CFO Services
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