CFOs know the potential of automation—indeed, some think an estimate that at least 30% of existing business processes could be done by robots is an under-estimate—and many are indeed taking the first steps to roll them out across their organizations. But a lack of easily identifiable, standardized automation targets, combined with calls on their attention from the rest of the business trying to cope with other kinds of digital transformation, is definitely slowing adoption. Finally, given the unique organizational-wide perspective they both share, partnership between them and their CIO colleagues makes perfect sense… and may even be achieved best ‘the French way:’ by a good lunch!
These are some of the main takeaways from a recent discussion on the topic of CFO-CIO collaboration around RPA recently hosted by global digital leaders’ membership group CIONET. Part of its ‘CIONEXT’ series, the webinar was hosted by the organization’s founder and managing director Hendrick Deckers and the head of the French CFO Association Armand Angeli, and was sponsored by UiPath, whose Chief Accounting Officer, Hitesh Ramani, was one of the invited panel.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough space to cover all the insights and on-going RPA experiences of the group, which included current or recent holders of the CFO office from Spain, France, Italy, and The Netherlands: the conversation is available on YouTube for any readers intrigued enough by our summary to find out more.
Many automation candidates
Let’s start with that 30% figure; what does that mean? It comes from a survey shared at the meeting conducted by CIONET which, according to its International Director of Research, Roger Camrass, found that many of the big corporates interviewed were already using automation, particularly RPA tools, for short-term fixes and that they were reporting ‘probably 30%’ of office work can be easily automated.
To which Gwen van Berne, a former CFO of an Internet governance organization, responded: “I think that’s understating the potential! In a recent automation project I participated in, just on the financial controlling side we estimated a much higher number. People are so bogged down with repetitive work they’re not actually doing the work for their role, analysis. So, I think there’s a huge potential, partially for cost savings but partially to add value add in these office functions to bring the corporate environment to the next level.”
Agostino Scornajenchi, CFO at Italian transmission system operator (power grid) specialist Terna Group and chair of the Italian CFO association, puts the need for robotic help in perspective. “20 years ago, the Italian system was 700 power plants providing electricity and sending our central control room a signal every 15 seconds. Today, we have more than 800,000 power plants that are providing a signal every five milliseconds. The time you must react to some variation that could create outages or impact on the quality of service is something that humans cannot do anymore, and something only machines can do.”
First steps, if not even serious automation implementations, are happening
All participants confirm RPA is being utilized to make a difference to this picture. UiPath has certainly seen demand grow: “With the onset of pandemic and especially now with the Great Resignation, we are seeing is substantial growth and opportunities,” Ramani confirmed. “Most corporations now want to expand their intelligent process automation technology footprint, and as a result we are really working hard to expand our partnership network to ensure that we are meeting that demand.”
Christa Koenen, CIO/CDO & Member of the Board of Management of global logistics provider DB Schenker, shared that her organization has already 150 RPA use cases live today, running from operational (automating the download of an electronic proof of delivery document) to filling in of tax fields in core accounting workflows. Xavier Baraton, Chief Director of Administration at Carrefour France, said he’s got around 220 robots, mainly in finance, for instance, while–perhaps unsurprisingly–UiPath says it has 250 plus robots/automations within the finance and accounting organization, meaning almost 20 percent of its workforce is already ‘digital’.
But while many panellists said they have implemented central RPA competence centers to manage automation rollouts, few believe they are very much advanced on their journey. Eulàlia Nadal, Chief Corporate Officer/CIO at Spanish food firm GBfoods, for example, thinks she’s only really moving out of pilot stage.
Maintaining momentum and focus
What may be keeping these enterprises back on the automation task is the simple workload. “Now we have hundreds of channels and every day there is a Twitter or there is a LinkedIn or something popping up with financial information that in you are obliged to control and you are responsible for,” pointed out Scornajenchi.
“Why it’s not done yet? Finance people are like IT–you give all your energy to the business,” commented Baraton. “So, you focus first on the business as a company, and for us, we need to focus on e-commerce, so all the investment will be focused first on that.”
There’s also the issue that, for all the initial progress RPA’s made, it’s still quite a tough problem. “It’s very easy to automate something on a small scale,” stated Koenen. “The challenge to not just automate but change the whole culture around the automation, which is much larger scale.”
UiPath agrees. “One of the big adoption barriers is a lack of sufficient standardized business cases,” said Ramani. “People don’t know exactly what to automate, or how to automate it. As a result, employees must be creative, and they must identify opportunities on their own. That calls for a change mindset; they need to be taking a conscious effort out of their busy schedules to identify where they should automate.”
The central importance of the CFO-CIO partnership
So, CFOs are busy–but they see the potential of RPA and are willing to keep pushing to automate despite all the simultaneous calls on their attention supporting the business. A key tool for removing the barrier here, the panel agreed, is an active relationship with their peers running the central IT office.
“In my experience, CIOs and CFOs work together extremely well, because we have—from our two different perspectives—a very broad view of the company,” states Koenen. “We have complete overviews of the company, from the financial perspective and so how the company works, and IT sees all the major processes and everything that happens in the company. That’s a perfect basis to work together at a high level and look at where change can be driven across the company.”
“It’s so important that the chief information officer and the chief financial officer spend time to discuss the shared objective and the vision for the organization,” affirms van Berne. “Look at all the possibilities that technology is giving but also prioritizing the people side. Really, you both need to develop a strong collective ‘narrative’ for the organization–why are we doing this and how will the future look like to ensure everyone in the organization will support that end state.”
“It’s all about working together in order to understand the other side,” confirms Baraton. “Let’s work and build together. Some say CFOs are controllers and CIOs are innovators, which I don’t believe it at all; if a CIO is not a controller of the flow of data we are dead, and if the CFO isn’t trying to change our processes to protect results, we are dead as well.”
“Sit together and create a common way to measure the impact,” agrees Scornajenchi.
There was some interest in the idea of automation being given to a neutral third party, but the practitioners concluded that the best way to move ahead with realising the promise of automation is a better CFO-CIO connection. “Invite your CIO to a good lunch!” suggests Baraton. “Make this guy your friend and deepen the relationship.”
Joking that the solution to the CFO-CIO automation problem was ‘the French way’ and was all the better for that, Hendricks concluded the discussion.