Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are all poised to transform the way in which businesses work, but can they really have a direct and meaningful effect on the day to day experience of Accounts Payable (AP) and Finance professionals?
What is Robotic Process Automation?
It is probably best to start here, understanding what RPA actually is. For many people terms like RPA and AI evoke images of machines in the workplace replicating human tasks. The reality is, unfortunately, not quite so visually stimulating.
The reality of these technologies, so far, is that they are software applications designed to digitally mimic human processes. A prime example of RPA in AP would be having a solution that automatically logs into external portals or web sites and extracts invoices to then be passed for processing.
Might sound boring. Well it sort of is… but then again so is repeatedly logging into the same web domains and clicking download and save to file, or worse yet download, save to file, print and then manually copying that data into a finance package.
Boring. Mundane and completely unnecessary and irrelevant. Nobody really wants to spend all day doing this.
These are the sorts of tasks that can now be easily and effectively farmed out to a robot to do.
Error-free Accounting With Technology
Account payable departments are still heavily reliant on manual tools such as spreadsheets, or legacy systems that need to be augmented with complex workarounds or manual processes.
All of these are susceptible to human error as information is carried from one format to another, and regardless of how focused you are on carrying out the task, we all know that repetitive tasks are by their nature mind numbing.
What happens when we get bored? We make mistakes. We are only human!
New technologies such as Intelligent Capture Recognition (ICR) RPA, ML and other areas of AI can replace these disparate tools and processes, reducing both the likelihood of human errors shrinking the likelihood of financial loss.
This is before we take into consideration the fact that an RPA or AI solution has no interest in making money for itself so is unlikely to be involved in any fraud, or sign off anything that is fraudulent.
Technology Doesn’t Need a Coffee Break
Sound daft? Well it isn’t, this is simply looking at cost benefit of machine over man. Now, there are an awful lot of things that machines cannot do as well as us.
But we are not interested in painting a Picasso, or designing a new piece of clothing. At least not yet.
RPA, AI, ML etc. all have something in common. They don’t need the same amount of downtime that a human does. Now, of course, there will be outages, connection errors, poor internet connection, upgrades etc.
Even taking all of these into account these pieces of tech can still clock more hours than a Japanese business person. I recently read that they regularly clock over 100 hours a week!
They don’t sleep, they don’t eat, they don’t need a 3rd cup of coffee to get them going in the morning. They just keep working, in the background, without complaint, all day, all night… You get the picture.
Still not convinced? How many days holiday does each member of your AP or Finance team have a year? 21? 25? Bank holidays? Now add all those days up… And yes, you guessed it, the robots don’t take holidays either.
Team Happiness, Moral & Futures
So, this is something that more and more people are finally coming to realise. Manually processing information is boring! It doesn’t deliver any value at all to the business. It doesn’t allow people a sense of achievement or worth.
Quite frankly it shouldn’t still be happening in any decent sized organisation. And if it is then you seriously need to ask the question, why?
Even if you can, somehow, justify the process that doesn’t resolve the issues currently being faced, and that are going to get worse.
Employees are bored, they have more to offer the business, and simply need to be given the opportunity. Your next generation of employees simply won’t do these tasks for long periods of time. Staff turnover will get even worse because you are too tight, or too bloody minded, to take the step out of the 19th century.
If any organisation truly wishes to recruit and retain the best and brightest available talent, get ahead of the competition and make more money they have to seriously invest into technology that removes the boring work, and frees up their team.
Processing Information Regardless of Source
So back to something that is, perhaps, a little more technology specific.
Financial documents, such as supplier invoices, now arrive in a vast array of different formats – and many accounts payable departments are struggling with inefficient, error-prone manual processes while they search for a way to catch up.
In the last week I heard, again, an organisation that was very proud of the fact that a lot of their suppliers now emailed them their invoices. Congratulations.
They then print them out in the office and key the data back into their ERP. Idiots.
Sorry, maybe that is a little harsh, but when you really sit and think about it, what is the point? What are they achieving? Well, nothing.
Speak with any decent supplier of invoice capture and automation tools and they will be able to grab the e-mails, or the attachments, straight from an inbox. NO MANUAL TOUCH! And if they can’t? talk to some else who can. Don’t waste your time.
How Can We Justify The Investment?
This is something we have heard asked more times than I can remember, and for some very small organisations it can be difficult to justify an investment.
If you simply think about this as a cost saving exercise.
The reality is very different, and I would argue that for virtually every business out there the question you should be asking is what will happen if we don’t make this investment… Food for thought perhaps.