We are clearly all living in a time of great change, perhaps mitigated by an uncertain future, which requires us to have a vision. Alea iacta est [the die is cast]: we have no choice but to ride this wave that has been generated, with due awareness, knowing how to weigh up the risks and opportunities, trying to capitalise on the momentum without being overwhelmed.
The metaphor is pharmacological, aimed at exorcising what our private lives have gone through and what will have to live, hoping that we can soon turn a new page, blank and still to be written.
The attempt is not so much of a notional but rather of a methodological nature, of an overall view and of the extent to which the synergy between company management bodies assumes a preparatory guise for the change underway.
Administrative departments, by their very nature, play a crucial role in directing the change process.
The Bill of Rights of RPA
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) often represents the drug offered in our companies, like a generic “over-the-counter pain killer,” for a wide range of ailments in our work organisation or simply to boost performance, even claiming a place in the “anabolic” category.
The methodology of supply and implementation is now well known and a simple search on the web with the keyword “RPA” offers many opinions, articles, methodologies and experts in the field.
Let us therefore try to reflect on the “intangible” aspects of robotic processes, which could nonetheless represent the indications for use, side effects and impacts on the individual organism, trying to write a leaflet – also known as “insert” – of this new “therapy” on the market.
The activities carried out by administrative and financial departments have changed over the last few years: suffice it to think of electronic invoicing, the ever-increasing number of checks carried out by the manager in charge, the continuous development of tax legislation, the digitalisation of documents, checks based on external databases (for example, DURC, DURF, checks on tax data, etc.).
In a progressive, diversified way geared to optimising the classic repetitive activities – with low added value and easily represented in actions that can be replicated by a process robot – in our company the robots that are supported by the workers have multiplied, thanks above all to the low costs for their implementation.
The Finance Departments are often the first to have to experiment with such solutions, given the large number of repetitive activities in both the administrative and compliance areas, particularly in as regards checks and the related testing activities (by way of example, the Tax Control Framework Act 262/2005).
In a story-telling process, the matter could be summarised as follows: you start by defining a flow chart of activities, you create an algorithm with these instructions, you set up the access utilities like any employee and finally you get a laptop.
It follows that the more the processes within the company are structured and regulated through procedures, the greater the possibility of mass application. The obstacles to this path are represented by the activities carried out by habit, practice or simply because “it has always been done that way”: the phone call, the printed and/or signed form, the protocol, that “extra” click that represents “a minus” in our time.
RPA represents an opportunity, the near future. In some cases it is already the present, and for those companies that have already embarked on this path, it is interesting to reflect on the establishment an internal control room that involves the Personnel and Organisation, Administration and Finance, Information Systems and Legal components.
The administration and finance department must assess synergistically which processes could be subject to RPA, which cannot be entrusted only to the assessment process, but must consider also the integrations with related business processes – for example, the processes of negotiation activities, purchases, sales, regulatory compliance, etc. – in order to define a methodology for use and avoid repetition or fragmented RPA on individual processes. The tools may vary: guidelines, operating instructions, administrative-accounting procedures or simply a central coordinator from the same department, as long as they follow very precise instructions.
The risk that each company structure will develop its own robots is high: suffice it to say that such software can be installed on the PC of any employee at low implementation costs, and does not require deep IT skills, at least for the simplest applications.
Robots work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and, once correctly trained, they do not make mistakes. It is clear, therefore, that the role of Personnel and Organisation is fundamental in the assessment process in order to address possible choices, often represented by Full Time Equivalent (FTE) reduction indicators. It is essential, therefore, for the “robotisation process” to take account of the physiological time required for professional retraining, acceptance of change and the control capacity of RPA. The increase in activities carried out by RPA must also be accompanied by the same number of control and monitoring tools, without which the perception of efficiency could be thwarted over time.
Information Systems represent the thermometer of the phenomenon: in technical terms, they play the role of Governance of RPA, with the task of defining common rules and providing assessments on the appropriateness of using such tools. By way of example: in order to respond to some specific needs, some integrated services are already available on the market that cover requirements common to several companies and do not require the development or configuration of ad hoc solutions, such as the DURC verification service offered by the INPS to third parties. The utilities provided to robots cannot be identical to those provided to the employees themselves; they must comply with rules on security, traceability of access and accounting operations carried out.
Whereas the responsibility for an employee’s actions of an employee lies with his or her line and/or functional manager, then does the responsibility for the actions of RPA consequently fall on the Head of Management? On the IT Governance? On the Personnel and Organization Department?
In other words, the RPΑ is described as a corporate resource, often also as a “virtual employee”; so why not imagine giving it a contract of employment to establish rights and duties, a workstation and users that follow dedicated protocols? Finally, it would be a good idea to designate the person in charge, as well as provide for protection against image damage, financial damage and other damages (an e-mail sent by mistake, a virus, an open security breach).
Instructions for use (key success factors)
The following is a list of what we believe are the “instructions for use” for the correct application of these tools and their maintenance within organisations:
– Definition of a strategy: to date, many companies have not yet defined nor shared a vision that sets the guidelines for the adoption of RPA and, in general, of intelligent automation on a large scale, but have limited themselves to an opportunistic approach in order to “cure a stomach ache” and experiment with new technologies.
– Process assessment: A crucial element in the structured adoption of these technologies is to map one’s own processes in a critical manner, in some cases providing for simplification and standardisation in order to identify activities and processes that can be automated. This is critical, in our view, as process standardisation and simplification certainly constitute one of the keys to success. A global study by one of the most highly regarded strategy consultancies shows 40% of activities in finance can be automated (fully) and 17% can be partially automated.
– Governance of these implementations with the involvement of the IT structures, Personnel and Organisation, with a control room on the correct functioning of the robots and preferably predictive interventions on possible problems, to acquire the necessary skills for a correct management.
After having tried to illustrate the management methods and the key factors for the success of projects for the implementation of RPA tools, a brief description of how this technology works and its advantages is provided below, for those who are less familiar with these tools.
For further insights, cf. the article entitled “Robotic Process Automation (RPA): considerazioni per un’efficace adozione in azienda” [Robotic Process Automation (RPA): considerations for an effective adoption in the company], published in Issue No. 4 of October 2020 of ANDAF magazine, from which some of the key passages below are taken.
RPA, or “Robotica” [Robotics] in the Italianised version, is characterised by a level of maturity within the reach of many: from SMEs to large organisations, in academic terms “creating disruption in an affordable way.” In addition to being varied, the current areas of application can lead to positive change both in the individual activity and in the interaction between the various business components. The metaphor often used to explain these “robots” to non-technical people is as follows: imagine RPA as an additional software layer, installed on your PC or IT infrastructure, capable of using the installed applications (e.g. Outlook, Excel, management software, etc.) impersonating the user or, more commonly, playing the role of a helpful colleague/assistant.
In its most basic, mature and economic meaning, leaving aside in this phase the deepening of the additional components capable of making the “robot” more/really intelligent for preventive process mapping, RPA is able to assimilate the activities to be carried and then to replicate them in a repetitive and identical way, as well as consistently and potentially error-free, and even schedule hem at its own discretion.
The basic assumption is that the activities can be mapped within a discretionally complex decision tree, capable of defining in an absolutely brainless way – and in this regard we could open a lively debate on the definition of Intelligent Automation – which elementary operations must be performed in all their ramifications.
A practical example is at times the most effective way to present a new concept to the reader: let us visualise our PC with keyboard and mouse with autonomous movements that make it possible, by way of (non-exhaustive) example, to:
– download an e-mail received, open the report in .pdf format attached, save it on your desktop and convert it into an .xls file;
– access the reference management system or a third-party application, move between commands and download a second report in .xls format;
– browse in a website and extrapolate any information of interest available on the web (exchange rates, weather situation, etc.);
– create a further .xls file capable of manipulating, forming and merging the information gathered with the previous operations;
– save this new .xls file in a .pdf format and send it to certain colleagues or external stakeholders by email.
The main benefits of or business reasons for using RPA, can be summarised in the following three categories:
– Free up production capacity
A robot is sold under licenses with unit prices that today cost a few thousand euros per year, and that allow robotic work to be used round the clock, year round.
It follows that, for example, when the equivalent of 3 hours of daily manual activities are performed by the robot instead of a human being, the thinking mind (human being) can focus on activities with greater added value thanks to the hours of work managed by the non-thinking mind (robot). In simple and “CFO friendly” terms, this is equivalent to saying “everything translates into operational efficiency”.
– Accelerate Time to Market
In some contexts, the production of reports , the delivery of information or a response to a customer, is so important that it is “monetizable.” In such contexts, having a robot that can work at any time (including days off and public holidays) and perform tasks faster than a human can be a significant advantage.
– Improve quality and reduce risk
In specific cases, primarily typical of administrative and controlling environments, having incorrect data (perhaps due to yet another repetitive and boring activity during the day) leads to rework in the best of cases, or even errors with more serious consequences. In such a case, another of the characteristics of the machines comes to our aid, namely not being able to get bored and of managing to complete tasks without errors.
RPA is now one of the technologies that is spreading most in companies. We nonetheless note that in most cases, the implementation of this solution – including innovative Artificial Intelligence solutions – is activated in the prototype phase in order to test new technologies and/or to solve specific problems. In our view, a more “mature” approach, characterised by the adoption of a medium- to long-term strategy and vision, would make it possible to benefit fully from the potential offered by these solutions. In this context, the CFO can be the natural innovation leader in companies, given his or her knowledge and management of data and information across multiple business processes.
Previously published in Italian in LA RIVISTA DEI DIRETTORI AMMINISTRATIVI E FINANZIARI, ANDAF Magazine Year 18 – Issue no. 4
Luigi Di Stasi is Member of the ANDAF ICT Committee, Head of Individual Financial Statements and Accounting Plan of the Italian State Railways
Nicolas Guglielmi is Member of ANDAF ICT Committee, Senior Manager EY
Learn more about RPA and finance at the round tables organised by our partner the CFO Automation Experience