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What is RPA, and how can it revolutionise finance departments?

What is RPA, and how can it revolutionise finance departments? 41

By Rory Gray, Vice President of Sales at leading software automation firm, UiPath, explains what role Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can play in improving the efficiency of finance departments over the course of the pandemic and beyond.

The pace of the pre-coronavirus world was already fast. However, time now seems like a distant luxury within finance departments. There is an increasing pressure to move quickly, increase efficiency and improve customer service, all while working remotely.

Unfortunately, for finance teams, improving efficiency and agility is easier said than done. Many processes involve legacy systems, paper-based documents and unstructured data. These all result in time-consuming and repetitive tasks which eat into a finance professional’s day.

Take processing invoices. The way it’s done hasn’t changed for years in many organisations. It often involves a member or members of the finance team receiving the invoice by mail or email, approving it manually, printing, signing and submitting it to Accounts Payable. An AP Clerk then has to pick it up, read it, verify the approvals, extract the data and input it into to the accounting package. This all takes time and costs money. What’s more, it’s dull and prone to errors. People don’t want to spend their days doing it.

Imagine if processes such as invoicing, but also purchase orders, expense statements and many more, could be automated. Finance teams would spend much less time hanging around the printer and more time making sense of strategic data and following up with decisions that really count during the current crisis.

This is where RPA comes in

Robotic Process Automation or RPA, is software that can work just like a human. It can read and interpret data from both physical and digital documents. It can extract the necessary information and it can transfer this to multiple IT applications. It’s a software robot – or digital assistant.

For finance professionals, RPA holds the key to freeing up their time and improving efficiency in their department and the business as a whole, while reducing human errors to almost zero.

Rory Gray

Rory Gray

In the past, under similar pressures organisations may have chosen to offshore many of their transaction-heavy finance processes to regions such as South East Asia where labour was cheaper. This posed a number of risks including degraded customer experience.

RPA on the other hand allows finance professionals to stay in control of these processes but without having to do all the legwork. The software robots can undertake the repetitive and manual tasks, only passing responsibility back to human colleagues if there is an inaccuracy that requires the personal touch or a loop in the workflow where a decision is needed. This saves time and money – and allows people to focus on the tasks that can make a difference to the business.

Let me add an example.  Accountants and financial specialists will agree that they can spend up to a third of their day gathering and modelling financial data in order to analyse its content and offer account and financial advise to business, clients and their employers.  Actually, the skill of an accountant is the latter of these tasks – offering advice and analysis.  When we automate the gathering and modelling, we create more time for better management and more rewarding work.

RPA in practice

The idea of software robots taking over repetitive tasks may sound futuristic, but it’s already happening at scale in many organisations. For example, a leading smart infrastructure solutions firm we work with has created a software robot affectionately named Archie, which has taken over the responsibility for processing all invoices.

Pre-Covid, the 400,000 invoices received by the firm each year were dealt with manually. With Archie this is now fully automated freeing up on average 11 minutes per invoice of time which employees can now use to focus on value-adding activities. It also means that no employee needs to come into the office to process the invoice, nor does any paper need to be passed around the team. Thus helping to keep the workforce safe.

Archie, and other software robots just like ‘him’, can work around the clock without fatigue, processing paperwork live. So when finance departments fire up their laptops at home, all the paperwork that came through overnight or over the weekend has already been handled, with any issues flagged and ready to be dealt with accordingly. This allows finance departments to power on with their day and focus on financial planning or analysis.

More time and lower costs aren’t the only driving factor for the adoption of RPA. Data intensive tasks are also freed from human error. However accurate we aim to be, the reality is that processing data is always open to mistakes. Software robots, however, are programmed by finance professionals to strictly follow the same steps every time and thus do not fall victim to the same blunders as all humans inevitably do. This in turn provides better risk management and compliance, higher accuracy, better cycle times and improved throughput.

With all this extra time, the role of the finance department can adapt to the current crisis. Moving away from data gathering, data entry and bookkeeping and towards advisory roles where they can best use their strategic skills.

This will not only benefit the business during the pandemic and beyond but will also free the teams from mind numbing work, improving employee satisfaction. A rare win-win in a difficult time.

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