The automation landscape for Finance Operations
Automation is evolving the foundations of accounting practices for the next generation of digital-native finance operators.
Successful finance operations are often characterised as having well-defined operating procedures, good governance practices (usually driven by audit requirements) and good operating routines that keep things flowing. The perfect formula for automation.
Data, process and decisions are a daily part of life in finance operations, but the systems and tools used to manage activities are often vast and, in some significant way, dependant on Microsoft Excel as a key source of unstructured data. This, on the other hand, is often seen as the nemesis of automation and the reason why manual processes still dominate the industry.
The new wave of low and no-code automation tools
However, as a cost centre, finance operations have historically been quite low on the “to-be-automated” list. This changed a little with the introduction of Robotic Process Automation, or RPA, and is undergoing change once more with the new wave of low and no-code automation tools like Microsoft’s Power Platform and Decisions.
RPA emerged a few years ago as the promised “silver bullet” for the automation of the seemingly un-automatable. RPA is actually a concept that has been around for a few decades though, founded on the idea of recording desktop actions for the purposes of application testing, removing the need for the human and unlocking speed and cost-efficiency for repetitive desktop activities.
Let’s be real though – RPA is a bit like Australia’s policies on climate change. It does tick a box but it’s not really dealing with the problem. In fact, in most cases RPA is just automating inefficiency. This can be perfectly acceptable in many cases though, particularly if the trade-off is achieving an automation objective sooner, which would otherwise be slow or impossible due to issues with legacy technology. RPA has its own administrative overheads though and is not considered a long-term, strategic solution to scale and efficiency by many an architect.
RPA does not trump a well-architected, digital-first ecosystem which could, or should, include some level of process automation, utilising intelligent low-code no-code business process management (BPM) tools like Microsoft’s Power Automate or workflow and rules automation platform, Decisions, to minimise and/or accelerate process and decisioning. RPA certainly isn’t cheap either, but a viable alternative where re-architecting or greenfields is unpalatable.
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Getting work done faster with Digital Decisioning
There is another side to process automation too – decisioning. The modern definition of process automation also includes some degree of automated decisioning, or digital decisioning. Digitising and accelerating a process is one thing, but within that process there are decisions to be made. In the case of accounting, there are decisions relating to authority limits, risk, netting off balances, and many more. Using the data that is available within a process and automating decisions that are systemic in nature is key to not only getting work done faster, but also ensuring approved processes for decisioning are consistently followed, with the additional benefit of reducing mental load on personnel.
The real opportunity that results from good digital process automation is having your people focused on value-driven activities
On a more macro scale, aside from process governance/adherence, the real opportunity that results from good digital process automation is having your people focused on value-driven activities, where everyone is working on the right thing (suited to their skills) at the right time. Yes, you’re likely getting more done with fewer people, but those people are also spending less time on repetitive tasks, instead focused on a narrower subset of tasks that are aligned to their skills and often have more value (or risk) attributed to them.
Whether leveraging RPA, BPM or other automation methods, an accounting practice is riddled with automation opportunities both big and small. Whilst some may fear that automation heralds the end of operational jobs, it is probably more reasonable to say that it is gradually evolving the foundations of accounting practices for the next generation of digital-native finance operators.
At Digital Experience Labs, we live and breathe digital decisioning and digital process automation. We’ve helped a range of teams and organisations, big and small, to understand and shift towards a digital future. We’d love to help you too.