Ready for the Robots?

Paul Dennis , Finance Practice Leader at CEB, now part of Gartner

Most finance leaders have heard about Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software, but few have firsthand experience of what it can actually do.

On the one hand, this is not a huge surprise, as finance is rarely an incubation centre for new cutting edge technology.  Finance has been historically slow to adopt new tools that can make manual tasks less cumbersome, partly due to a lack of exposure to what new technology can do, and partly due to finance’s inherent risk aversion to new software that could mess with the accuracy of the numbers.  But on the other hand, if you consider the constraints under which the current finance function operates—budget reductions, staff working longer hours and making more errors, and auditors insisting on more controls and documentation—it’s surprising that more finance teams haven’t looked at RPA more closely.

However, once a CFO gets past the mental hurdle of assigning tasks such as filling in forms or reading databases to a robot, the benefits become clear.  Robots are more efficient than humans.  They work 24 hours a day and never get tired, sick, or snowed in.  Robots don’t make mistakes or become distracted and consistently deliver more accurate work.  And if those benefits aren’t enough, robots are cheap.  The average point of entry cost for RPA is equivalent to 1-2 full-time employees, and in most cases they can be programed and operational in less than three months.

Robots are coming to finance whether CFOs like it or not.  In fact, as of this year, 19 percent of finance teams have started evaluating how they could use RPA, and a further 15 percent are implementing or have implemented it already.

Finance leaders can look toward their peers in shared services as an example, as they have adopted RPA at unprecedented speed.  In 2015, only 39 percent of shared services organisations had started evaluating or implementing RPA, but today that figure is 83 percent.  Shared services takes cost and service quality metrics more seriously than any other central function, so finance leaders should learn from their positive experience.

While there are some risks involved in trials of RPA software, such as working with a new vendor or staff feeling threatened that their jobs will be eliminated by new technology, the risks of not moving forward are far higher than most companies imagine. In fact, new CPAs expect exposure to new technology and are more put off by its absence (and the implication that they need to do the manual work themselves) than by its presence.   

Ignoring RPA software and the benefits that it can bring is no longer an option for any functional leader. Successful companies follow a three-step process to evaluate, implement, and operationalise RPA software. Those organisations know that the companies most likely to have success in the future are those that are making the investment in and innovating with RPA today.

Written by Paul Dennis, finance practice leader at CEB, now part of Gartner