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Robotic process automation: a vision of the future

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 21 Feb 2022

It’s a hot topic in finance right now. Rob Binns, CFO at Access Group, discusses why accountants should embrace, not fear, the acceleration of digital transformation.

There could be many reasons why you decided to become an accountant. You’re gifted with numbers and complex formulas – not everyone is. There are specific skills and traits required to become a successful accountant. Accountancy isn’t for everyone, which is why it’s an admired and respected career path. But as demand for using digital processes and automation in finance increases, will this diminish the profession?

Whenever new technology is introduced in any sector, we’re met with the same question – will this technology replace me and my role? The burning topic within accountancy and finance right now is Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – a form of automation that uses software, robots or AI to complete repetitive tasks. Automation is nothing new, but the term RPA in particular has some accountants worried.

Automated everything 

Look a little deeper though and you’ll see there’s a juxtaposition. A survey in 2020 found that 81% of banking CEOs were concerned about the speed of technological change, which is more than any other sector. But not everyone in the industry is so wary. 

Over the course of the past two years, cultural shifts brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have made finance, and many other industries, hurtle towards an automated future faster than anyone could have expected. Although the statistics suggest that some may find it uncomfortable, it’s no secret that speeding up manual, repetitive tasks using technology helps to positively impact the bottom line.

Many of us are already using elements of RPA, perhaps without realising – if you’re storing documents online, automating bank records or working with any kind of centralised payroll system, then you’re one step closer to automation. In June 2021, 20% of organisations across all sectors had adopted RPA, increasing from 13% in 2020. By demystifying misconceptions around the technology, finance leaders can really reap the long-term rewards, while retaining and attracting future talent – rather than holding teams back by refusing to change. 

Understanding the appeal

To understand the shifting landscape of the industry, we first must look at how many businesses in the UK actually invested in digital technologies. In December 2021, the government revealed that 2021 was a record year for UK tech investment, with over £29.4bn invested – figures that back up the predictions from our 2020 financial pain points report.

This survey covered all age groups. However, when you consider the highly tech-focussed culture that Gen Z or even millennials grew up with, we can begin to understand the impact that embracing technology versus maintaining traditional practices can have on attracting the talent of tomorrow. 

The modern accountant now values flexibility, as well as a better work/life balance and clear career progression. They don’t expect to spend each day reformatting spreadsheets or chasing up paper invoices. Instead, they want to demonstrate their expertise and shape future finance strategies.

A PwC report from 2020 said: “This is the first generation to enter the workplace with a better grasp of a key business tool than more senior workers.” And businesses should be taking advantage of this by investing in these tools; soon the entire workforce could benefit.

Changing culture 

Replacing typewriters with computer word processors in the 1990s didn’t cause creativity to suffer. But it did save users hours of time, make editing more flexible and remove the margin for error. This same theory can be applied to RPA in finance.

A sharp, analytical mindset will still be needed to act on the figures that software processes can present to you. And by automating tasks such as invoicing, credit checks and more, your team can focus on understanding the bigger picture. With less stress caused by completing mundane tasks, complex decisions that require imagination will flow freely, benefiting your business.

More and more, perceptions around accountants’ role are changing. Professor Sébastien Rocher at the University of Lorraine in France recently shared a theoretical look at how negative stereotypes are shifting in popular culture, referring to accountants as “the saviour”. This is also arguably true in practice. 

Research shows that the skills within finance are becoming more valued, predicting that finance leaders could soon play a key part in organisational transformation for the companies where they work. This mindset is exactly why at The Access Group, we employ lots of former accountants who believe in the potential that automation could bring to the industry, pushing the sector forward into exciting new realms.

Looking ahead to the future, leaders mustn’t shy away from new technologies if they want to remain agile. Those who embrace RPA will empower employees, bolstering their capabilities and freeing up their days by removing repetitive administrative processes. 

Click here for more information on The Access Group’s financial management and accounting software.

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