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Interview: ‘RPA adds value to finance’

The CFO of the world’s leading group in service robot development practices what his company preaches

by Malene Grouleff

The automation of routine tasks is at the top of the agenda for Carsten Gram Andersen, CFO of Blue Ocean Robotics. The company markets the brands UVD RobotsGoBe Robots and PTR Robots, which open the door to automated disinfection, rehabilitation and telepresence. Blue Ocean Robotics is based in Denmark, the most digitalised country in Europe; more specifically, in the city of Odense, also known as the “European capital of robotics”. Carsten Gram Andersen sees his primary task as being able to free up as much time as possible to focus on business analysis of the company’s performance because that is where the finance department can really generate value for the rest of the organisation. 

On 12 November 2021, the European Commission released the results of its annual Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), which measures levels of digitalisation in the EU. The latest edition of the index crowns Denmark as the “Digital Champion” of the EU. The report also highlights the numerous digital initiatives already in place in the country – many of which proved their worth during the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, in the autumn of 2020, the high level of digitalisation made it possible for the government to issue stimulus cheques to two million people in less than eight days.

In your opinion, how is RPA (Robotic Process Automation) developing in your country? 

Generally speaking, Denmark is distinguished by a high degree of digitalisation, with extensive automation in both public and private sectors. Moreover, large employers, in particular, are currently working hard on optimising their processes.

In my previous positions with Glycom and Lundbeck, we were very curious about how RPA could eventually support automation of common and standardised processes to allow for the business to focus on more complex analytics and deliver support to the company’s profitable growth. Some headway was achieved, but there was still a way to go before meaningful impacts were possible since, to some extent, processes do need a certain level of maturity before they can conform to RPA technology.

The finance department at Blue Ocean Robotics has a staff of 12, including two ERP system specialists, who work closely with three IT specialists to provide service for the company’s global workforce of 225 people. Blue Ocean Robotics was recently honoured with a spot on Fast Company’s Top 10 “Most Innovative Robotics Companies, 2021”.

How do you currently make use of RPA in the finance department? 

As I see it, integrating the mindset behind Robotic Process Automation can be a great help for establishing a finance department that genuinely adds value. The whole point of a finance department is to provide a solid decision-making basis for the company. As CFO, my task is to help develop the business and contribute to executing the strategy. To do so, we have to have an in-depth understanding of the business, its market and customers and which key drivers will accelerate profitable growth.

In my view, you can outline the tasks of a conventional financial department in the form of a pyramid, where the broad base represents the time you spend on completing processes and taking care of basic and key transactions and compliance. The next layer – the middle of the pyramid – focuses on alignment and preparation. The top triangle is the time you devote to analysing, reaching conclusions and acting as a professional business partner for the other members of the management team. Communication is the key to a value-adding finance team.

Preparing a set of accounts that balances doesn’t do a lot to generate value in and of itself. That’s why the whole point of automation is to turn the pyramid upside down, placing you in a position to devote more time to value-adding analysis and dialogue with the business.

The effect of increased digitalisation and automation is that you gain firmer control of the processes, which, in turn, produces more reliable figures and clearer conclusions more quickly. These are all factors that increase confidence and boost the capacity to act in the rest of the organisation, as well as among the board of directors and owners. For example, it provides a valid basis for assessing which customers the company generates most profit from; conversely, it can clearly illustrate who or what is having the biggest negative impact on profits.

At Blue Ocean Robotics, the finance team has, during 2021, worked hard on structuring and optimising processes and principles for payment deadlines, debtor days, accounts outstanding, stock tie-up, creditors and so on. Data-powered analysis of these aspects makes it more simple for us to optimise our working capital and prepare cash flow forecasts. For a relatively young and rapidly growing company like Blue Ocean Robotics, we still need to devote time to some basics, which ultimately will increase the likelihood of success with RPA and other digitalisation efforts.

Has the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this development? 

We really appreciate having our own service robots that can operate autonomously, disinfecting our offices and production hall. We’re also glad that we can still hold meetings with people all over the world in spite of the tough travel restrictions, often supported by our own GoBe Robots. The pandemic itself has led to a significant increase in the demand for UVD Robots and GoBe Robots, and we have therefore automated the entire workflow from customer enquiry to order and then on to approved credit insurance, logistics, delivery and invoicing. At the end of the day, we, as a robot company, have to practice what we preach to our customers. Anything else would put a dent in our credibility.

The pandemic had little effect on us as regards RPA because we were already highly digitalised with an ERP and finance system that is based on digital processes. This meant that the team could work from home without any problems during the lockdown periods. That said, there is still potential for additional digitalisation, where we’re thinking about having software robots scan PDF invoices sent to our invoice in-box and then automatically match them to the relevant orders in the finance system. Moreover, we have an app that makes it simple for staff to approve invoices, as well as a digital travel expenses solution that is integrated with our credit cards. While it’s no easy task to get a global company to run 100 per cent digitally, we are committed to continuing streamlining these processes. In practice, this means that we will actually have to deploy robots in the processes themselves so that we won’t have to add proportionally more staff in the finance department, even when Blue Ocean Robotics grows 100 per cent bigger.

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