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Automation in finance functions: lessons from India and the UK

11 September: COVID-19 is likely to fast-forward finance function automation, but what underpins the successful use of automation technology? A new ICAEW report shares key insights and lessons.

Automation has been a key priority in finance functions for many years and new technologies and tools such as robotic process automation have created more opportunities for accountants to automate their tasks and processes. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to put even more emphasis on automation in the future, both as a way to increase efficiency, save money and reduce reliance on people.

To explore this further, ICAEW has released a new research report on automation in finance functions, which brings together a range of practical experience in using technologies such as robotics in finance. It also shares key insights and lessons about what underpins the successful use of automation technologies and the impact of automation on our members working in business. 

A UK-India collaboration

The research has been carried out in collaboration with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) and is the first piece of joint working of this kind between the two institutes. It also points towards further collaborations in the future, supporting the development of deeper relationships between the UK and countries such as India in a post-Brexit environment.

Working with ICAI enabled ICAEW to access leading businesses in India and the UK and hear a variety of perspectives on the impact of automation. Given the size and scale of finance operations in some Indian companies, and the complexity of the Indian legal and compliance environment, automation can have a particularly transformative effect there. Conversely in the UK, a lot of high-volume finance operational work which would have been prime candidates for automation has been moved out of the UK, limiting the practical or economic viability of some types of automation.

This feature of outsourcing and offshoring in UK finance functions emphasises the strong connections between the two accountancy sectors, given the level of activity which has been moved to India in recent years. Indeed, most of the companies interviewed had some finance operations in both the UK and India, highlighting the value of knowledge sharing on an international basis. 

Key themes from the report

The report highlights three important and consistent messages from the companies interviewed. 

First, automation is essential to the future of finance functions. Far from destroying finance jobs, it takes over repetitive tasks and enables accountants to spend more time on more valuable tasks such as analysis, business partnering and strategy. Automation also underpins access to high-quality and timely data and therefore is a key enabler to wider digital transformation in finance.

Second, to achieve best results automation should be closely aligned with process improvement activities and implemented in an agile way. The examples shared by the companies used a variety of automation tools and technologies were often highly targeted and led by finance staff. However, automation is not an end in itself and can sometimes act as a sticking plaster over a poor process. Consequently, the research highlighted several cases where finance decided to implement less automation than expected and focus instead on improving the underlying processes.

Third, attitude and culture are as important as skills when it comes to the impact of automation on people. There is a lot of effort and focus on upskilling accountants with more technology and data skills, as well as the softer skills to support more advisory or analytical roles. However, the research emphasised the importance of attitude – for example, being open to change, willing to learn and try things out, and always looking for better ways of doing things. 

Launch event

The publication of the report will be marked by a joint event between ICAEW and ICAI on the 16 September. This will include comments from the presidents of both institutes, who will recognise the value of working together. There will also be an industry panel with finance leaders from India and the UK, who will discuss the key findings and broader implications of technology for the profession. 

To find out more, visit the event listing.