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Automation in finance functions: lessons from India and the UK

Drawing on real-life experiences, this collaborative thought leadership report by ICAEW and the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) considers how finance functions can harness automation to deliver greater value to business and the skills needed by accountants in the future.
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Businesses expect finance functions to maximise the efficiency of their operations and minimise the time they spend on non-value activities. They increasingly want improved reporting capabilities that can support faster and better decision-making. Automation is a key tool in delivering this goal and, therefore, a high priority for many finance functions today. The growing demand for automation has been matched by improvements in the available tools.

Automation in finance functions

This report shares practical insights from finance functions that are making extensive use of automation technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA). The collaborative approach between ICAEW and ICAI enabled the research team to learn from finance functions located both in the UK and India, providing a richer picture of where automation is happening and what underpins success. 

The research suggests three broad areas that key stakeholders should focus on to help finance functions succeed in a more automated world. 

Emphasise the benefits and share good practices

The benefits of automation are wide ranging and encompass more accurate and timely data, improvements in controls and compliance, as well as more interesting work for accountants, with less time on repeatable or monotonous tasks.

A lot of successful automation is incremental and highly targeted. Companies interviewed for the report emphasised that automation generates more benefits when it is integrated into wider initiatives aimed at process improvement and not treated as an end in itself. Automation needs to be applied appropriately so that it is not just a sticking plaster over a poor process. Most of all, finance functions need to own the change themselves.

Reskill staff to work in changing roles

Greater use of automation inevitably has implications for staff. While there is a correlation between automation and headcount, most jobs are made up of a number of different tasks, often leading to the reshaping rather than elimination of entire roles.

Stronger digital skills are consistently viewed as vital for accountants to be able to undertake changing roles. Such skills do not necessarily translate into deep expertise for all, with most staff just needing to be confident and intelligent users of tools. Having the right mindset and attitude are as important as reskilling.

Demonstrate a different value proposition for finance

Many finance functions are already shifting their focus to higher-value work by providing more insight from data and working closely with business functions. Accountants can be well placed to identify good business questions that data can help to answer.

If you have any feedback on the research findings, or would like to share your experience of automation in practice, please contact kirstin.gillon@icaew.com.

Further reading

Thought Leadership Automation in finance functions