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Automation and the CFO: Appetite for change

by Marco van der Hoeven

The UK is one of the front runners in automation. A lot of companies have moved beyond just RPA, and added technology such as process mining and AI to their business. This change has implications for the involvement of the CFO in IT investments. “The C suite has to not only buy into it even but champion it more than anything else, because they’ve paid for costly mistakes in the past already.”

“We’re seeing an appetite for change, and for investing in new technologies across both private and public sector organizations,” says Alastair Roriston. Sales Director at London-based FutureWorkForce. One of the reasons this appetite has been given a boost was the pivot to embrace digital homeworking during the pandemic. “Some retail businesses were not ready to accelerate their online offerings for sudden acceleration in consumer online shopping.”

“As a result we’ve seen some long established retailers disappear from the high street here in the UK. Which has highlighted business flexibility for survival to the C-Suite and really brought automation to top of mind.  The ‘Swipe Generation’wants things now and customer service available 24 hours a day, and organizations wish to make staff more productive.” As a result the C-suite has gotten involved in introducing innovative technology as part of their transformation projects. A recent survey among CEO’s by McKinsey showed around 5% of the margins in large corporations are now actually coming from AI.

In the UK there are several drivers for automation. “We have the great migration from our cities to living in the country and working either permenatly out of home or in a hybrid of infrequently visiting the office. And of course there is the great resignation as well, with people changing their life priortires and leaving orgasnizations with a massive labor shortage, particularly in technical skills. From patients to consumers the way we interct through chatbots, apps and video calls when we want to is putting additional prsssure on organizations to service these needs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year”

Process mining

This is where technology comes to the rescue. “Traditionally to fully understand operations at the micro level, process mapping sessions would have to be undertaken and lead to many RPA projects failing to deliver the promised ROI. Traditional process mapping can take several months and remove SME’s from the business at key times to understand process in their entitirity. With the newer vendors in this space this process can be reduced to days or weeks.”

“They take details from log files, essentially the data every system produces and build a real map of how your process works. The dashboards based on your metrics and SLA’s can very quickly paint a picture of where issues lie. The answer may not be automation but to remove an uncessary step or another action. Process mninig is now the first step in any organizations ability to transform.  Following the great switch to remote working, and now the great resignation, businesses are seeing the inefficiencies highlighted in their operations. So transformation and automation programs are being accelerated. There’s also a realization that just quickly automating part of a process doesn’t create a great return on investment. There now is a need to understand processes better. That can be done with process mining. We sometimes see process definitions have been lost over time because of changes made, or the only person that understood how a process works has left the company so they’ve lost that IP as well.”


That is why Roriston sees a lot of interest by CFO’s in Intelligent Automation, including AI and chatbots. “C-level executives were meeting, and starting to have conversations on automation, and about what technology can do. Now there is a real migration because they have seen the return on investments. Automation is connecting all those siloed disparate systems that in the past have grown up in isolation, that everybody has to interact with. The return on investment of automation is an important topic for the CFO, especially since some have gone through big painful transformation projects in the past, that haven’t delivered on time, and have cost a lot extra.”


Another important item on the agenda is security. “With RPA robots are in fact impersonating a human being. The robot is essentially a digital worker. So how do you protect it and make sure it’s secure? Another topic on the agenda is the skill shortage when it comes to Intelligent Automation. There’s a lot of automation jobs available in the UK at the moment, and that’s no different in France or Germany.”

According to Roriston the US and UK are the most mature Intelligent Automation markets, and because these markets move beyond RPA these skills are really needed. “At first RPA was this accelerant to do things. But what was missing was the end to end understanding of processes. And that’s the part where intelligent automation comes into play. One of our clients, who have realized that RPA just isn’t the answer for everything, uses process mining to understand what processes can be successfully automated. This drives their funnel of automations. So it’s changed in the more mature markets, I think eventually everyone is going to catch up. Here in the UK process mining is top of mind.”

Executive sponsor

“When you start a journey of automation you cannot know which journey you want to take until you understand where you are today. Because that way you avoid that a new project doesn’t deliver these promised returns. What we’ve learned is to be able to quickly diagnose what’s simple, medium, and complex, and what’s actually really complex as well. The discovery part stops you from making the mistakes of the early adopters. And you need to have an executive sponsor, the C suite has to buy into it even more than anything else, because they’ve paid for costly mistakes in the past already.”


Another technology that gains momentum, next to process mining, is AI. “That is several steps further than process mining, another extension of RPA. We already interact with chatbots, we already interact with systems.” He says this can definitely be a technology for good: “When you look at the way that we’re developing as a human race, we are overpopulating the planet, we can’t sustain it, so we’re going to need something to help us. We need to understand more, and we’ve seen more acceleration with AI over the last 20 years than we’ve seen the last two hundred years. Technology is a massive change. We collect more data than ever before, and need to make sense of it. That’s where AI can help us make better decisions. I think AI will be the next acceleration.”

Learn more about what’s on the digital finance transformation horizon at this round table by the CFO Automation Experience, an initiative by finance professionals, for finance professionals.

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