10 finance automation tips to save you from repetitive tasks (and manual errors)

 

Automation is seen as a product of engineering or technology. We perhaps think of Henry Ford and the development of the production line as one, or maybe how farmers can harvest and sort crops, throwing away what’s needed without even getting out of their seat. Today perhaps automation is seen more as how we can control the heating, open a bank account or work out the best journey route to take. But automation is not to be found only in an app or a factory, but in all the processes that drive companies today.

Automation is about:

  • Reducing human effort
  • Applying consistency
  • Reducing errors
  • Managing the mundane and much more besides.

Automation is not just technology; it is how people do more and about how systems and processes are enablers to progress. According to Cognizant, organizations automate just 25%-40% of their workflows.

So, why is the office of finance slow to embrace automation?

Automating the office of finance requires some planning and, very often, following a path previously well tested. It requires an understanding of the gains that could be achieved to justify the time and effort to make the change. Risk in the office of finance has many elements and in the process of automation it will deliver increased risk in some areas, which can be managed, and reduce risk in other areas.

Below are our ten tips for finance automation. Are there any you would add to our list?


1. Understand why you need finance automation

According to SAP:

Only 2% of organisations have all their processes modelled.

For growing or scaling businesses, what you do today is very often borne out of past experience, scale, input and limitations of those who join as the company expands. For established and larger organisations, the picture is very often one of inertia, and a lack of desire to see change as a necessary part of any organisation.

All companies waste a considerable amount of time on manual processes, and for the office of finance, that very often means manual data entry, workarounds, spreadsheets (“Excel Hell” – but more about that another time!) and manually driven processes required to move data from one system to another.

Getting the most from your finance process automation requires:

  • An understanding of what you do today and why that process exists
  • Why the technology chosen is being used.

The technology being used may have been fit for purpose in the past and performs okay today but is in fact driving processes that are less than efficient. If the current state is efficient that does not, however, mean it will remain so.

2. Begin with the end goal in mind

What you want to achieve from automation may not always be possible! Start with an end-state aim, and then determine how much is achievable and what the route is to deliver the best approach and the best outcome.

Today’s business environment, culture and access to technology may be very different from a few years ago. The result may not be achievable today but in the future, it may be and mapping a path that takes you in the right direction, and not down a process or technology cul-de-sac, is important.

But how do you start finance process automation in the finance department?

3. Get an external view from a finance consultancy

It is a generally held view that there are five types of consultancies:

1. Strategic
2. Operational
3. Financial advisers
4. HR
5. IT and general management.

Whichever consultancy you decide to pick, whether they are tied to one or multiple technology partners or whether they are pure consulting only with no technology bias, is a subject of much debate. Where the consulting is a high-level strategy, independence can offer advantages. However, for more focus on deliverable outcomes, consultancies with direct technology experience, specific to your needs, offer a considerable advantage.

When understanding what can be achieved for the office of finance process, automation should be led first by a consultancy well versed in the needs of the CFO/FD, and with a proven track record in such programmes, from inception through to delivery.

External consultancies bring with them benchmarking for where you are and what you could achieve. They have a bank of knowledge to give a realistic assessment of the time, financial, technology and the other commitments that will be required.

4. Understand your debt

A typical department in any organisation, and not just finance, is made up of people, processes and systems. According to Cognizant:

22% of an employee’s time is spent on repetitive tasks.

Finance automation will allow people to do more and move away from repetitive tasks to add greater value. Getting to this point requires first, an understanding of the three debts that hold back progress:

  • Data debt
  • Technology debt
  • Process debt.

As companies expand and evolve, technology that was once suitable no longer applies. Similarly, companies investing in technology as a tactical solution or without a more well-thought-out strategy of looking to the future and beyond the office of finance, is technology debt.

Data debt concerns how companies create, manage and use data. Not investing in solutions or developing processes that deliver results for the future creates vacuums in data, or an excess of the wrong data. Or, perhaps worse of all, it leads to multiple versions of the same data, thereby going against the notion of ‘one version of the truth’. Data debt often comes about because of a focus on single projects or a quick-fix approach to the need to manage data more effectively.

Sub-optimal processes, work arounds, manual intervention when it could be automated; do any of these sound familiar? These are all examples of process debt.

Understanding your debt stack is vital for any finance automation project to succeed. Starting with the end in mind, accessing current state and benchmarking, may all help paint a route forward, but all this can be undone without an understanding of what could add considerable weight to any transformation project.

5. Solve, don't compound

It is not uncommon for companies to look at what they do, have a view of where they are, assess where they want to be and then build towards a better solution - with greater automation. In moving forward and making progress, it is all too easy to build a way out of one way of doing things and develop another that solves these problems - but only creates more.

It was Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who said, “move fast and break things”. That is often seen only as a method of experimentation and error to get to a better solution, allowing failure to become part of the process of evolution. But it is also about making changes that intentionally break things. Zuckerberg never said, ‘move fast and if things break….’

Solving operational challenges, adding automation can often mean intentionally making changes that are hard, or uncomfortable, or perhaps that not everyone will agree with. But taking the easy route can often lead to greater issues later and, instead of solving the challenge of manual processes, we simply exchange one for another (or we create brand new challenges).

Solving one problem through automation may have a cost, as long as that cost does not compound the situation in another way, such as introducing a multitude of solutions/suppliers, multiple datasets, or more workarounds, then it should be a true solution.

6. Plan your transformation of technology roadmap

There has been a significant expansion of cloud accounting software in terms of the wider capability doing more through technology rather than merely sticking to general ledger and accounting, reporting, expense and asset management.

Companies today are challenged to look further and deeper into the future, we need to:

  • Plan better
  • Understand the social and environmental impact
  • Link to operations
  • Understand ‘what if’ and be able to react and respond far more quickly.
  • Match agility with the ability to do more.

Companies need to invest in data and the tools required to manage and manipulate the data. As companies grow and expand, it matters to understand what options there are for the future - both in terms of the technology available and needed now, and what will be needed in the future.

A point solution that is perfect today may be less than optimal in the future as needs change and as more tools and systems are required. Investing in a platform solution, even if you only need one element, likely offers a far better outcome in the future.

7. Automate with technology in finance

The ability to use technology to automate repetitive and menial tasks delivers more than that alone. It reduces manual errors and the need for multiple sets of data, or the need to re-key data. According to Softwarepath:

Human error accounts for 41% of inaccurate numbers in reporting.

More than understanding which technology to choose, it is more necessary to understand:

  • What the technology can do
  • What its limitations are
  • How it can interact with other technology
  • Whether it is a point solution or whether it offers a multi-solution platform approach.

Discovering what is possible requires investigation and, almost always, input from specialist consulting companies or solution providers.

Finance automation frees up time for users to get out from behind their Excel spreadsheets, remove the boredom, and deliver more meaningful insight, perhaps to a wider audience and in formats and detail tailored for different readerships.

Knowing the order to select and deploy technology may often be driven by ‘quick wins’, ‘most needed’ or ‘toughest first’ - all of which are fine if the whole transformation works together and does not become a series of conflicting priorities and technologies. In short, knowing what to do and when, and staying true to the path is vital when using technology to automate tasks.

8. Futurescape your team

Technology, in and of itself, will only achieve so much:

  • Implementing a better budgeting and planning tool may allow better insight
  • It may allow for more regular automated finance reporting and a central repository for the data behind it.

It falls short, however, if the people producing and consuming the data still follow the same process. Understanding the part people play in automation is critical to greater success, to the wellbeing and longevity of the team.

Building a team for the future of the business, rather than plugging a gap for right now, requires a clear view of the route ahead. Providing the team with better tools that are able to do more, will allow the company to do more and will ensure people stay longer. According to StrategicCFO360:

60% of CFOs are planning to increase their investments in automation in light of the tight labour market.

Are you one of them?

Automation has several other, more human benefits, too:

  • It is a key driver in providing better job fulfilment
  • It increases team engagement through technology and better processes
  • It promotes career and personal development
  • It reduces staff churn.

Understanding the team you need to have is driven by your finance automation roadmap – and allows you to find the people to recruit now for the tasks you have tomorrow.

9. Finance automation projects are just the start

Automation is not about plugging in a new system, organising new processes, training the team and then continuing with the new world, as before. Automation offers the chance to continually improve and make gains, the opportunity to continually develop. As people get better at their tasks and find new ways to do things, further gains can be made.

Automation should be seen as a programme that begins with a project to implement new systems and new processes. Continually evolving is a key component of beneficial gains in process and systems automation. As this programme continues, it will release more time for the team, it will open opportunities for yet further technology and automation gains – it becomes a cycle.

If any finance automation project does not spark further change beyond the life of the project, it will have failed to deliver. It might have ticked the boxes of the project itself, but it will have missed the most important element of any project – creating pathways towards what you do next.

10. Think beyond the office of finance

Automation is not a departmental or IT project. Automation has to be companywide. What sits within one department has implications - and opportunities - for other departments. For the office of finance, automation can involve:

  • Demand planning
  • Supply-chain optimisation
  • Finance and operational planning
  • Business forecasting
  • Finance reporting
  • ESG and much more.

The gains made by automating the office of finance can deliver benefits and gains across the business. Likewise gains made by the office of finance can have implications in other departments, too.

To extract the most from finance automation, it matters to understand the impact across the business, what else it can deliver to other departments and the risks associated with changes to systems and processes. The office of finance is a key part of any organisation it is important that it delivers benefits through automation throughout the business, and not just for itself.

Finance automation offers significant opportunity for any finance function to achieve more, reduce repetition, and retain staff. It allows the company greater insight, and a more agile approach to managing the ever-widening demands of the Office of Finance.  Accenture estimates:

80% of today’s finance processes can be automated.

Does this hold up in your own department?

Solving the challenge of finance automation requires a holistic approach and a clear route to the future state. Working with partners who understand this, and have delivered successful projects before, ensures the right approach is taken. Choosing the right partner can be the difference between an acceptable outcome or something that delivers far more.

VantagePoint is passionate about improving your finance function and the value it creates for your wider business. We ensure your office of finance is empowered with systems and processes that are tailored to your specific needs. Using a holistic approach, we listen to your unique set of challenges and help you create a people, process and technology solution that meets the demands of your business.