Optimising financial processes

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Predictions & Contradictions: Automation


The advent of new and rebranded tools, aligned with powerful marketing, have given us an exciting couple of years of imagining a digital future. None has had a bigger share of attention than Robotic Process Automation (RPA), which continues to morph marketing wise into ‘Intelligent Automation’, whose acronym has raised the profile of many an Internal Audit department! As we pass the ‘peak of inflated expectations’, through the ‘trough of disillusionment’ to eventual ‘plateau of productivity’ (terms courtesy of Gartner’s Technology Hype Cycle), we are learning valuable lessons for the future.

The evidence is clearly that RPA has been largely ‘Robotic Task Automation’, and the massive productivity benefits at a task level do not tend to scale to end to end process improvements, and the ease and ‘freedom’ of agile approaches have been challenged. We have learned that traditional disciplines, of business process understanding, governance, risk management, change management and service management, among others, are critically important in the new world. It has raised the bar on expectations on leadership and talent. RPA is here to stay, as one of the key tools in the toolbox for point integration between systems, eliminating ‘swivel-chair’ frustrations of data integration between Excel and the ERP system, for example.

However, we have also learned that rumours of the death of traditional ERP have been exaggerated, and that our investments in new technology must be matched by our focus on making the current tech work harder. The role of ERP is changing. No longer the “one stop shop” for all “back office” system requirements, the traditional barriers between front and back office are breaking down. ERP is being recognised as the central system of record for key finance and manufacturing processes, with a hub and spoke architecture to integrate the newer industry and process specific applications.

Cloud-based SaaS models continue to gain traction as businesses recognise the value of the hub and spoke architecture, and economics dictate a preference for operational costs aligned to value (pay as you go) rather than over optimistic capital expense business cases with a long tail!

In a recent CFO survey, the single most important digital transformation lever was an interesting ‘league table’;

  • Process automation/robotization 45%
  • Data analytics 29%
  • Leveraging dashboards and visualization 11%
  • Moving from paper to digital 10%
  • Other 5%

But as ever, the key point is to remember that ‘the best automation is elimination’!