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Doing more with less: How RPA will assist finance departments in the new economy

04 May 2020

Article by BlackLine A/NZ regional vice president Claudia Pirko.

Whither the finance professional in 2020? Overworked and under-appreciated, many of those at the coal face would opine! As the COVID-19 induced recession continues to bite, finance teams are on the cost cutting frontline; working with their employers to find ways to rationalise expenditure and effect savings, without compromising product and service quality. 

They’re also playing a key role in the restructuring and rebuilding process – helping to evaluate emerging business opportunities and the contribution they might make to the bottom line, as enterprises recalibrate for the post-pandemic economy to come. 

At the same time, finance professionals are under considerable pressure to keep costs down on their own patches. That means managing ongoing workflows and meeting the growing expectations of decision makers with teams no larger than they ever were, and possibly significantly smaller.

Achieving more through automation

Doing more with less is never an easy proposition but it’s precisely what finance professionals are being asked to achieve, in today’s challenging conditions. 

Automation of repetitive and routine tasks is a means by which productivity can be boosted quickly and cost effectively. Frequently, the scope to do so is significant. Recent Blackline research suggests finance departments currently spend 49 per cent of their time, on average, on the old-fashioned transactional activities for which they are best known – journal entries, reconciliations and the like. At the same time, finance employees report being asked to step up to the challenge of becoming ‘business partners’ to the senior executive team; proactive expert contributors, rather than reactive, backroom number crunchers.

Robotic process automation (RPA) – the automation of simple, rules-based business processes – can slash the number of human hours needed to complete transactional tasks, while reducing error rates to near zero. BlackLine’s research indicates 38 per cent of finance teams’ collective time could be freed up through the use of automation. That’s the extra time, right there, that they need in order to add value working on the business, not in it. 

RPA is also a key component of the continuous accounting model; an approach to managing the accounting cycle which sees workloads distributed evenly across the accounting period, not concentrated at month-end. The model is finding increasing favour with Australian and New Zealand organisations which prefer detailed, up-to-the-minute visibility into their financial position over the retrospective snapshot that traditional reporting represents.

Harmonising an ill-assorted arrangement of systems

RPA technology can also be deployed to capture and interpret data that is housed across multiple standalone solutions. Almost three quarters of CFOs surveyed by BlackLine stated their organisations currently had six or more solutions in active use, driving the financial reporting process. That’s a status quo which is synonymous with complexity – and complexity is the perennial arch-enemy of efficiency.

Deploying RPA technology to integrate and harmonise those systems could potentially free up dozens of hours each year which could be devoted to value adding activities.

Attracting and retaining the top talent of tomorrow

Not only are there compelling reasons for finance departments to embrace new technologies, there are significant risks associated with not doing so. Many of the CFOs surveyed by BlackLine see a talent crisis on the horizon, as millennials eschew the steady climb to the top with a single employer in favour of job hopping between organisations they perceive will add greater value to their CVs. Against this backdrop, enterprises which present as being behind the times may find attracting and retaining high calibre finance professionals an ongoing challenge.

Lean and efficient: building a finance department that’s fit for purpose in the 2020s and beyond

The 2020s look set to be a decade of significant economic challenge for businesses, as they collectively recover from the black swan event that is COVID-19. A proactive, efficient finance department will be a source of significant competitive advantage during the tough times ahead. Organisations which invest in RPA and the changes to modus operandi that commonly accompany it are likely to enjoy a considerable productivity dividend – in the finance department itself and across the enterprise.

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