The combination of enforced remote working and the need for increased agility in such an uncertain environment has highlighted the inefficiency of many manual processes. It’s no wonder that increasing numbers of finance teams are exploring ways automation can be used to their benefit.
Kirstin Gillon, Technical Manager in ICAEW’s Tech Faculty, says automation offers huge potential to increase accuracy, efficiency, streamline processes and free up finance professionals to do other more value-add activities. And yet many CFOs and their finance teams continue to rely on manual processes often based on spreadsheets. “One of the big business drivers during the pandemic is the need for better and faster information – near real-time where possible – and that can only be achieved using automation,” Gillon says.
“Finance teams have and will always get the job done, but the pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having financial information immediately, not at month-end,” agrees Thomas Sutter, a career Finance Director and Controller who now works at Oracle NetSuite in its Finance Centre of Excellence. “We’re seeing a shift in the CFO and finance team’s role and processes as a result, moving from an event-driven close process to a more strategic position as the moderator of continuous accounting.”
Marchela Georgieva, an ICAEW member and co-founder & COO of automation company Capto, says people are no longer questioning whether automation can add value but instead wondering where their automation focus should lie. “Now people are asking ‘how can we make our invoicing processes faster, how can we manage our spending better with people working across different locations’ – COVID has totally changed the game in that respect.”
The three cornerstones of success for finance automation projects – process, people and technology – are all critical. At a more granular level, experts outline some of the factors that will help ensure your finance automation projects support your business recovery and avoid the possibility of project failure.
Get senior-level buy-in
You need a senior-level sponsor – ideally at board level – to ensure your project is a success and is seen as business-critical. “Board-level buy-in before an automation project even starts is essential,” Sutter says. Establishing a finance ‘ally’ can really help to make the case for a finance automation project, he adds. “Many businesses have non-exec directors with a specific specialism in finance. They will share your understanding of your business and what needs to be achieved and are ideally placed to speak on your behalf to the board.”
Focus on outcomes
Automation can be a sticking plaster over a manual process that actually isn’t good and yet approached correctly it presents an opportunity for improvement. “Ask yourself why that process exists in the first place. This is an opportunity for process redesign,” Gillon adds. “Does the process still make sense or is there a way to streamline it before you automate it,” Georgieva says. Minochehr Vania, Head of FS Finance Analytics at KPMG UK, says: “Rather than using automation for the sake of it, be business-led and technology-enabled; start with defining the business question to solve and then build a solution for it. This approach will ensure concrete objectives are met, rather than it being a vanity project.”
Don’t see it as a tech project
This must be seen first and foremost as a finance project, albeit one enabled by technology. “If something is pushed from IT, unfortunately, you can encounter reluctance. Change needs to be driven from those individuals who are part of the process,” Georgieva says. But remember that collaboration is key, Vania adds. “Bring other areas of the business to the table early in the process and co-shape solutions with them to ensure all parties’ needs are met.”
Instead of biting off more than you can chew, start small and prove value to the business by showing quick wins. “This way, projects will stay on track, and it will be easier to secure investment for additional automation projects in the future,” Vania adds. “Focus on small projects to automate repetitive processes that act as a proof of concept. Invoice processing, reconciling cash to different ledgers, and billing are typically good places to start,” Georgieva advises. “Standardise processes as much as possible but remember there will always be reasons for something unique or ‘by exception’, Sutter adds. “You’ll need the flexibility to be able to do something differently, for a key customer or new market for example.”
Don’t underestimate the cultural aspects
Helping people to see how their roles will change because of automation will pay off. Inevitably, people are nervous about the impact of automation on their jobs. Usually, the message isn’t about headcount reductions but reworking jobs, so it’s important to communicate the impact on peoples’ roles and the opportunities that presents in terms of focusing on more interesting and fulfilling work. “Engaging people can be a very challenging task, especially when it comes to large processes,” Georgieva says.
Make sure people don’t feel this is something that is done to them, Gillon warns. “It’s got to be driven by the people who do the processes, so it needs to be about empowering individuals to see this as part of their role and helping them to see the opportunities in automation. The ownership needs to sit in finance to find the opportunities rather than IT forcing tools upon them,” Gillon warns.
Track the difference that the automation project makes to your business and communicate those successes back to the team. “It gives confirmation that the business and personal investments made in automation projects were worth it and can fuel future automation projects,” Georgieva says.
Invest in training
Digital upskilling is an important component of any automation project, Georgieva says. If you’re putting in any tech-based solution you need to teach people how to use it to get the best out of it and them. “People are actively looking for upskilling into that stream of work so training needs to be factored into the project. And make sure there are opportunities to feedback constructively on the changes that have been implemented.”
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