By Brian Sullivan, Managing Director, Accenture Oracle Business Group
The bots are coming! The bots are coming!
No, that’s not a line out of science fiction thriller. I’m talking about a technology called intelligent process automation, also known as IPA. And while there’s nothing scary about it, one thing is certain: intelligent bots are coming to a finance organization near you—and quite possibly your own.
Intelligent bots are relatively new to the finance world. If you asked a CFO about IPA as recently as a couple years ago, you may have been greeted with a blank stare—or maybe an assumption you were talking about a type of beer. No longer. IPA is swiftly becoming an integral part of modern finance organizations, and increasingly a competitive necessity.
IPA is the next chapter in process automation—the evolution of a technology that started a few years ago with “robotic process automation,” or RPA. Simply put, RPA is about creating a code or program that performs functions formerly done by humans. A simple example might be comparing two sets of transactions. The software bot goes out and analyzes column A and B, extracts selected data, puts it into a spreadsheet, attaches the doc to an email and sends it out to a distribution group.
Following a set of business rules defined by humans, bots now handle everything from processing purchase orders and invoices to distributing management reports. Sure, people can do that too—and have for decades—but bots will happily do it at a fraction of the time and cost, while eliminating human error in the process. What’s not to love about that?
RPA is a great start, but IPA takes bots to a new level, empowering them to learn and improve over time—and promising a dramatic transformation of the finance function along the way. Smart bots can recognize patterns in financial transactions and learn to “write new rules” based on these patterns. Because the bot rewrites the code on its own, humans are spared the trouble of dealing with every routine exception. For example, an intelligent bot could discover mismatched reconciliations that follow common patterns, such as twice-entered transactions differing only in a plus or minus sign. A well-designed IPA system can give you the option of quickly reviewing its proposed fix or just allowing the bot to handle it on its own, saving even more time and money.
This is the essence of what makes bots “intelligent”: they are programmed to be self-programming. Other types of intelligent bots include “chatbots” that let you ask natural-language questions like, “Show me the latest Q1 sales forecast for Asia-Pacific.” Get ready: Alexa and Siri are coming to a finance organization near you.
To be clear, IPA won’t make humans obsolete. Far from it. People are just as important to the success of process automation as the bots themselves—both as creators of the bots and as “trainers” who continuously improve their performance. And remember, humans are the ultimate beneficiaries of the work shouldered by bots, which allow people to shed all kinds of monotonous chores and take on more valuable activities like strategic planning and business innovation.
How do finance staffers feel about sharing their workload with robots? Well, you might expect a certain degree of apprehension or even mistrust, at least at first. Change is hard, and no one wants to lose their job to a bot. But there are good reasons to love IPA. For one thing, it can help many employees restore their work-life balance.
Here’s a real-life example. At a Fortune 1000 retail company, one employee spent part of every Sunday logging in from home, pulling data from multiple sources, formatting it in a spreadsheet, and creating a PDF before sending it out. Now, with IPA, the whole process is fully automated, and the employee got her Sundays back.
And that’s just one small step. Imagine how many evenings a similar employee could be home with his or her family if the mad scramble of closing the books at the end of every month could be eliminated. That’s now within the realm of possibility with IPA. By adding more intelligence and autonomy to bots, finance organizations can ultimately enable real-time closes with virtually no human involvement. Your books will balance themselves automatically, every minute of every day. That’s the “nirvana” that IPA can one day achieve.
Despite IPA’s clear value proposition, it’s still not uncommon for people to get worried whenever you “move their cheese.” That’s why finance should adopt strategies to ease the transition and dispel worries about losing jobs or changing familiar work routines. Accenture works with organizations to help generate excitement around adopting IPA and keep staff engaged during the rollout. Companies that think in advance about smart communications campaigns can help reassure and motivate employees by blending the promise of removing spreadsheet drudgery with the prospect of career growth.
Effective change management programs can also help retrain and re-skill employees to take on new roles and responsibilities. Remember, you’ll need these employees to help test and manage any new IPA system you decide to implement. We also encourage organizations to develop a plan to update their bots as their applications evolve and as new automation opportunities arise. Think of your bots as needing “care and attention” much like human resources. If you don’t maintain and develop your bots, you could lose the ability to update them—or even know what they’re doing.
Change management is just one part of a comprehensive plan to harness the power of intelligent bots. Before making an investment, many organizations can benefit by conducting one or more proof-of-concepts. This allows you to refine your automation initiative and prioritize projects with specific business outcomes and paybacks in mind. Plus, you’ll avoid the costly mistake of “building for the sake of building.” Fortunately, cloud providers such as Oracle now offer cloud subscription services for a variety of automation technologies, making it easy to start small by testing the solution before pursuing a larger investment.
I’ve seen many of our clients start with a small proof-of-concept before rolling out bots across the organization. The results have been impressive. For example, after deploying bots to automate invoicing, journal processing and reconciliations, one financial services client was able to triple processing speeds, saving the equivalent of more than a dozen full-time employees. This savings allowed employees to work on higher-value activities while their traditional activities were completed with lower error rates in less time.
At the end of the day, the vast majority of finance staff are happy to exchange boring, repetitive tasks for more thoughtful and satisfying work. Instead of spending the day matching invoices, staffers can take on more interesting projects like forecasting, performance analysis, and strategic planning—that is, tasks that really help the business grow, innovate, and profit.
What’s not to love about that?
Brian Sullivan is a Global Managing Director within Accenture’s Oracle practice, focusing on growth and strategy activities relating to services tied to Oracle’s set of SaaS applications. He has spent his career advising and delivering complex solutions around finance and supply chain process areas by deploying enabling technologies from Oracle and by driving additional value through industry and functional extensions.