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Finance loves automation-but is it for the right reasons?

Part 1 of our report on 'What’s on the digital Finance transformation horizon?'

by Gary Flood

CFOs are right to look at RPA for bottom line reasons first—but practitioners speaking at last week’s CFO AX webinar on what’s on the digital transformation horizon for Finance teams revealed that automation is actually being influenced by a number of business and non-business factors.

We talk a lot about the right way to spot the ideal way to automate Finance processes. But Chief Financial Officers don’t really have that much Angst about it all—saying that in practice, approval of RPA projects gets a ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ from the best metric of all: will it save us money?

Thus, Vodafone Italia’s Finance Transformation and Accounting Operations Manager Adriana Rosa, who surely speaks for many heads of Finance when she notes that, “Automation is clearly about better quality but also efficiency–about reducing time spent in doing certain activities, but also about high volumes of data and collecting information that we’re not able to manage without having these kinds of tools.”

Another CFO, David Wray, Huawei’s Global Accounting and Reporting Senior Director, also confirms the need to always build a solid RPA business case. “For us, the primary drivers for automation for us is absolutely efficiency–about how do you do the process more efficiently.”

But while money is a huge filter for automation in their businesses, organizations speaking at a new CFO AX roundtable last week also see other factors as contributing to approving an automation business case—including positive impact on staff, but also dealing with an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

So… is there also a need to stop thinking about just quantitative return on investment in robots, but also to start thinking of their qualitative ROI, too?

An opportunity to to allow individuals to innovate and automate

The value of doing so, agreed participants in a late April CFO automation networking club online meeting, could be to connect the benefits of automation with Finance directly in the minds of impressed employees—which could be much better ‘PR’ for the CFO than letting automation get smuggled in as a by-product of improvements in ERP, such as upgraded OCR for document and invoice scanning via Oracle or SAP (“Some of the large ERP vendors are certainly trying to be more than an ERP, which is no surprise–frankly, that’s the way the market’s going,” confirms Huawei’s Wray).

“There’s an opportunity here to put automation in the hands of individuals—to allow them to innovate and automate across tasks you consider to be mundane, but which might not be for them,” said IDC Senior Research Director Tom Seal.

“And if you look at a Finance process of your choice and look at the pathways and the battle to automate that, there’s certainly competition there between the ERP and the automation vendors. Yes, there are certain external influences, geopolitically, economically, that are driving change and a move to automation–but there’s another dimension here, which is the empowering of the human through automation, which involves some of the same technology.”

“For sure, it’s all about making sure that you identify and understand the business challenge, and then using the right technology to solve for that challenge,” agreed Stephen Faulkner, Vice President – Global CFO Industry Lead at sponsors of the discussion UiPath.

“But it’s also being very clear on your expectation of how you can influence the employee experience. At the end of the day, our employees are our assets, and we need to help them have a different experience in the work environment; that’s what’s going to differentiate us.”

What’s complicating things, agreed participants, is wider changes in the whole way Finance is now being expected to work with the rest of the business—including high expectations of digitization beyond automation, and pressure for CFOs to step up to the plate and take on responsibility for Sustainability and overall corporate social responsibility goals.

“People need to be trained to work with robots, with RPA, but also with a lot of systems,” pointed out Vodafone’s Rosa.

“They often need to add Finance knowledge to digital knowledge, especially in bigger enterprises like Vodafone. We are investing a lot in digitalization and new systems with the aim of improving how we perform, but also to closer to the business and understand what it needs—to change our processes in a way that will support the business and provide to the end customer a good service.

“At the same time, I see an increase in the amount of information that the board or stakeholders are ask of us, which means RPA doesn’t mean a reduction of Finance’s activity, and usually actually means an increase for report requests. When you adopt a technology now, you have to think forward–you have to think of what you collect today that you can use later, like ESG compliance, information about your carbon footprint, etc., as you’re probably going to need that all soon.

“There is a big confluence of the activities provided by Finance departments and we’re getting more and more involved in more and more topics, so we want good automation to help us there, too.”

For UiPath’s Faulkner, this extension of the CFO’s role through better real-time data and better use of resources through robots is a no-brainer. “We will end up taking what we’ve learned over decades in financial reporting and accelerate that into Sustainability reporting, so that Sustainability reporting when it does integrate, finally, with financial reporting, gets done in a seamless way.”

‘We have to think about how we help individuals transition’

Perhaps in the end, the best approach to CFO-driven automation success is a blend of both quantitative and qualitative perspectives—mixed in with some useful human-style empathy for what it is you’re doing to your colleagues’ workdays with all your great automation.

“Yes, there’s also the aspect of how you end up changing the nature of work that results in a much more interesting role for most individuals,” agreed Huawei’s Wray.

“But we should also be mindful of the fact that there are different types of employees, and some employees really like being in detail and like repetitive activities, others don’t. I think we also must think about how we help individuals transition from that perspective,” he cautioned.

This CFO AX roundtable can be found here

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