What RPA really means for management accounting
Can humans and robots work together to improve the finance function? Instead of creating mass redundancies, robotic process automation (RPA) aims to increase efficiency and enable people to do more value-adding work.
At a glance
Not so long ago, UiPath RPA technical sales consultant Ken Day implemented robotic process automation (RPA) in a customer’s business system and met a finance manager who spent two days a week checking a spreadsheet for errors.
While the office manager could only check 10 percent of the table for two days, the robot could check 100 percent and present anomalies to the finance manager for investigation.
“I can still remember saying, ‘Here’s the robot’ and then pressing the button,” Day told the CPA Australia Management Accounting Conference in August.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I just lost my job’.”
Day and his team investigated and found that their follow-up work for the company was now worth A $ 1 million as the robot was able to check the entire spreadsheet instead of the 10 percent attainable by the finance manager.
“She looked at the numbers and said, ‘I like this robot,’ and then her next question was whether we thought she should go and ask for a raise,” he says.
Rather, it minimizes the drudgery of many of the manual tasks performed today, improves the quality of work, while determining efficiency and value for the company.
Get to know the robot
In the future, he says, it will be common for humans and robots to work together, and work teams to be referred to as “three people and two robots”.
The big difference is that the robot is there around the clock and “always does what it is told”.
“This bot may be working on your desktop and start processing while you work,” says Day.
“You just push a button and send your robot off to do something while you do another job.”
Robots in financial services are the best of both worlds in many ways, he says. They are cheap and reduce risk because they make fewer mistakes and work faster.
According to Day, all companies will likely implement bots to some extent. While the benefits of processes and compliance are clear, change management isn’t that obvious: the way people interact with robots and welcome them into work environments.
One company that has done this is wholesaler Metcash, which works with independent retailers under the IGA, Miter 10 and Cellarbrations brands.
RPA and the finance function
Jennifer Mitchell, Program Manager at Metcash, presented the company’s case study at CPA Australia’s Management Accounting Conference.
The six month old RPA project is owned by the company and funded by the CFO. A steering committee is identifying opportunities to address the low hanging fruit, such as voting and data entry processes, that show how easy RPA is to implement. She says.
“Every time we improve a process and use a bot, we tell the CFO who the sponsor is and he tells the management team. Our teams talk to each other. We have an informal and formal stakeholder engagement up and down. ”
The mandate is to simplify and automate the low-value and repetitive tasks.
Some of the savings, according to Mitchell, demonstrated how tedious processes can be. Many of these are based on manual data entry into legacy systems that could not be integrated into current systems.
“For example, we saved two days a week entering data for a team member by simplifying and automating a process,” she says.
The bots, given names like “Chuck” and “Tradie”, are also cheap to use and easy to implement. It takes about four to six weeks from the idea to the way it works.
“We have a pipeline of about 20 opportunities and hope to have 30 projects done by fiscal 2020,” says Mitchell.
“We have really good people who we really want to keep, and we’re not going to keep them by keeping their jobs boring,” says Mitchell. For humans, their verdict is that those who hug the robots can make the transition positive. Like the finance manager in Day’s example, all they need to do is see where to use their best skills and become more proactive in their roles.
For the people at the end of this pyramid who have traditionally done labor-intensive work, this is a real industrial revolution, which ultimately means they can find new value in their work and “improve their contribution to business partnerships.”
It urges people to adopt an “automation-first mindset” that includes change and the idea of a “digital workforce” that combines humans with robots to drive business results.
RPA, she says, changes where work is done, what work is done, and who does the work.
Critical elements of the finance function will continue and be enhanced through RPA.
“Independence, interpretation, and judgment, all of this will continue,” she says.
“A mindset that puts automation first enables people to do more data-driven analysis. Once you accept this, it is a critical step in the right direction.”
Explaining data to customers is much more than just the data.
In reality, when an accountant sits down with a client to explain and interpret data, the client initially only takes in about 10 percent of what they are told.
Catherine Gillespie, executive director of consulting firm Workplace Conflict Resolution, says the other 90 percent of the client’s attention is focused on the verbal tone and emotions of the delivery, with a full 50 percent coming from reading body language.
“You probably think that if your data and analysis are correct, your data should speak for itself,” Gillespie said at the CPA Australia Management Accounting Conference.
“My suggestion is that the data doesn’t speak, you are the one speaking, but you are doing so much more than just speaking.”
Customers, says Gillespie, are heavily influenced by body language at the beginning of every interaction. Is the person you are talking to making eye contact? Are they slightly turned away from them, are they playing with their watch or are they constantly clicking their pen?
When answering speeches, customers initially focus more on the way words are spoken than on their actual content. “They’re there to talk about the dates, but before they hear about it, they round it up and try to figure this out.” What do you say to me and what’s your hidden agenda? “Says Gillespie.
“The information that people immediately absorb and process is the information they will first notice.”
Everyone in the personal services industry needs to understand their own communication style and try to become familiar with that of their customers. Otherwise there is potential friction, she says.
The responsibility for managing communication and being sensitive to the differences does not lie with the customer, but with the service provider.
“Often we can quickly blame the customer and say that they lack perspective or that they don’t know the rules,” says Gillespie.
“These may contain an element of truth and you can leave it at that, or you can go a step further and take responsibility for the quality of communication.”