How Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Transform Finance & Accounting (F&A) Department

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) enables you to improve productivity, drive down costs, and streamline compliance. It frees more time for you and your team to act proactively and focus on the strategic work that brings joy and adds value to your business. 59% of Finance & Accounting leaders believe RPA will make their business more competitive over the next two years.

How Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Transform Finance & Accounting (F&A) Department
How Robotic Process Automation (RPA) Transform Finance & Accounting (F&A) Department

As the roles of CFOs and other finance professionals continue to transform to keep organizations on a forward-looking path, RPA has become more significant than ever. RPA mimics human actions to carry out the lowest-value work that typically consumes the largest amount of energy, thus allowing Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and other finance professionals to focus their efforts wisely and more strategically.

So, who is using RPA, and how? Is it easy to do? Where do I start? How does it relate to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what will happen to my department during and after automation? Let’s find out.

“The best way to automate general accounting processes is to take a more agile and iterative approach to realize the most value from automating the process effectively.”

As you will see from this article, those who implement it are quick to reap the benefits. And it’s easy to see why:

  • Build automation visually with ease. Even business users can learn to create their automation.
  • Automate processes on top of your existing systems and aggregate data across all your fintech applications
  • Stay free of panic with complete audit trails

Read on this article for how RPA working for your Finance and Accounting department.

Content Summary

Introduction
F & A: a changing function
The challenges of digital F&A transformation
The impact of F&A legacy systems
Extracting data is still very manual
Business process management: not the complete solution we hoped for
Robotic Process Automation: lightweight, flexible automation
Picking processes and people
Finance and Accounting process automation entry points
Considerations for automation
The results of RPA can be dramatic
RPA: The onramp for artificial intelligence in the enterprise
Case in point: cash applications
How UiPath RPA works
Make automation a priority

Introduction

Innovation is the name of the game for businesses trying to stay one step ahead of their competitors. Regardless of the type of business you run, accounting and finance is a critical source of operational innovation and competitive differentiation in sectors as diverse as consumer electronics and automotive manufacturing.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, legacy processes are hindering the digital transformation of basic accounting operations. Robotic Process Automation can be a powerful on-ramp to the digital transformation of these processes. Having spent over a decade developing the technology, UiPath is a leading provider of RPA software.

In the pages below, we will build the argument for why businesses should rethink the way they currently execute processes and explore how the role of finance professionals is changing, the challenges with legacy systems, and how RPA offers the opportunity for businesses to become leaders in digital transformation.

F & A: a changing function

As a result of the 2008 global financial crash, businesses across the world place a higher premium on financial health, starting with cost control and risk management. To improve the financial health of the business, accounting departments have been under pressure to deliver greater performance against budgets. Greater scrutiny has been placed on all areas of accounting operations, reporting, and management support.

As a result, business models and accounting roles are changing. Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and their representatives increasingly drive more informed strategic decisions across business disciplines. Finance professionals now also occupy seats at the highest levels of the organization where they are expected to use their commercial and technical skills to advise senior business leaders.

CFOs are now a crucial partner in enabling the growth of the business, providing the appropriate financial data and insights. They also ensure that the business complies with the relevant regulations while mitigating its risk exposure. However, as this strategic focus has grown, finance and accounting professionals have struggled to meet the volume and variety of the existing operational transactions their job encompasses. In many cases, financial professionals would rather be spending less time on routine accounting operations and more on higher-value work that drives more strategic outcomes.

The challenges of digital F&A transformation

To this end, there has been an industry-wide shift to undertake digital transformation initiatives to improve efficiency, minimize business risk, and improve transparency within the organization. However, this transformation has come with its own set of challenges including legacy systems, paper-based documents, unstructured formats, natural language interactions, and fragmentation. These challenges must be addressed if an organization is to truly make the most of digital technologies in its accounting function.

The impact of F&A legacy systems

The introduction of enterprise resource planning (ERP) software in the early 1990s set a precedent for multinational businesses to fundamentally change the way they interact with accounting and finance data.

“In many cases [ERP systems] force companies to re-engineer their business processes to accommodate the logic of the software modules for streamlining data flow throughout the organization,” (The Evolution of ERP Systems: A Historical Perspective.) As well as re-engineering their processes, many large organizations have spent decades investing heavily in modules and add-ons to these ERP systems, assigning much of their workforce to use and maintaining them. Accounting processes have been engineered to fit around applications such as Oracle® E-Business Suite, SAP®, Oracle® JD Edwards EnterpriseOne, and Oracle® PeopleSoft Applications.

This has made large organizations sluggish in responding to digital transformation. In comparison, newer, born-in-the-cloud businesses have a much easier journey because they don’t rely on cumbersome legacy applications, they were born digital.

Extracting data is still very manual

Another challenge is that many accounting documents such as invoices, purchase orders, expense statements, and even checks, to name just a few, are still processed on physical paper.

They’re often scanned in as images to create a digital copy and they’re then archived in physical storage. This compounds the problem; data from the scanned image is not electronically readable unless a specialized optical character recognition (OCR) software is employed and, secondly, the physical paper-copy still needs to be stored, adding an extra cost to the process.

Even once the data has been extracted, it often takes the form of unstructured information or consists of natural language that is understood by humans but is not easily used by most software. Contracts and audio-recorded customer interactions are a good example of this. Natural language needs to be reworked into a structured format that can be easily processed by computer systems. Once it’s extracted and structured, the data still often needs to be manually recorded into the system to be processed digitally.

Business process management: not the complete solution we hoped for

To date, many of the process management methods that businesses have used to overcome these challenges have not been ideal. One method that businesses have tried in the past is to create programs that improve the efficiency of some of the repetitive accounting processes that humans do.

A typical Accounts Payable (AP) invoice processing workflow for a human might be as follows. First, they receive a paper invoice or an invoice by e-mail, which is approved manually or over email, printed, and then submitted to AP. An AP clerk takes this invoice, reads it, verifies the approvals, and extracts the data, inputting it directly into the accounting package — or for large firms that receive hundreds of invoices a day, this may be extracted into a spreadsheet first and then imported into accounting software.

Once it’s in the accounting software, the invoice is ready for payment and processed for payment disbursement based on the payment terms and the frequency of payment batch runs. AP professionals perform these payment runs manually by batching up invoices for payments, checking and removing duplicates, and finally disbursing either for physical check prints or electronic funds transfer (EFT) to banks.

Before robotic process automation, IT programs and their processes revolved around making the process efficient and visible through business process management methods. They streamlined the flow, but at a heavy development cost, and even then, it cannot be said to have truly automated the process. This is where robotic process automation (RPA) comes in.

Robotic Process Automation: lightweight, flexible automation

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation (IRPA) defines RPA as, “the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems”.

Rather than hard-code automation workflows and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) into software programs, RPA mimics a person’s actions on top of existing systems. RPA works in the same way that a human worker reads and interprets data from a physical document and transfers this to multiple applications on their computer.

Robots can seamlessly move data across boundaries, from one application to another, mimicking activities such as clicking, typing, and moving between windows. Also, these robots can use native and add-on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning models to enhance overall capability and learn from experience.

For accountants and finance professionals, RPA can play a crucial role in transforming your operations. Where, in the past, organizations have off-shored many of their transaction heavy accounting processes to labor arbitrage regions such as India, South East Asia, and the Middle East, RPA can improve efficiency and effectiveness, without the increased risks, degraded customer experience, and increasingly vanishing low labor arbitrage benefits from traditional outsourcing or offshoring key business processes.

Because digital labor in the form of RPA can supplement and augment the human workforce, it allows people to achieve more with fewer resources in less time. Accounting firms and service providers can begin to move away from the traditional approach of full-time- equivalent (FTE) revenue models, where revenue is determined by individual time-based productivity, towards outcome-based revenue models that consider value-add versus traditional transactional metrics.

The robots used in RPA are much more cost-effective at processing large volumes of recurring tasks. The robots can work around the clock without fatigue and, although there are initial setup costs and ongoing maintenance costs, the return on investment (ROI) with RPA is much higher.

However, for many accounting departments, ROI may not be the only driving factor. Here, RPA also provides better risk management and compliance, higher accuracy, better cycle times, and improved throughput. This is essential for end-of-month reporting and accounts receivable, lowering the day’s sales outstanding (DSO) value. Robots free up your expensive F&A resources to work on higher-value activities and focus on outcomes, which not only improves employee engagement but competitiveness and customer experience as well.

Picking processes and people

With the use of RPA, for the first time, accounting departments can reliably automate many of the processes they were previously unable to.

One of the key considerations is variation. For example, if 90% of your transactions can be mapped in ten steps, but 10% require an additional two steps to be completed after step three, this becomes an exception to the rule that needs to be managed. Here, exception paths need to be built into the workflow to manage the variation. While these processes can also be automated, it will take time to build workflows into the robotic process, so the business has to decide as to whether the additional time delivers value. This is where the role of humans alongside RPA will change. As robots take over the routine, repetitive transactional processing tasks, finance, and accounting professionals will be expected to become expert exception handlers. They will need to perform the complex, judgment-based, transactions that the robots are not able to perform.

The role of managers in accounting departments of the future will move away from managing people to driving higher-value activities from their staff, including exceptions and decisions that require human intervention, while the orchestration engine oversees operational performance. Finance and Accounting professionals will move away from data gathering, data entry, and book-keeping and instead take on more advisory roles where their judgment and consultative skills will see them become business partners.

The fitness criteria for choosing which processes to automate are:

  • It must be a highly manual, repetitive and high volume process
  • It must be a rule-based process
  • It must have a low exception rate (low variation between processes)
  • The inputs must be electronic or machine-readable
  • The processes and their underlying Applications must be stable

Finance and Accounting process automation entry points

Here, we’ve picked out a list of the processes in finance and accounting that are highly suited to RPA. Though the listing is not comprehensive, it provides a good suggestion of F&A sub-processes that can be explored by any organization that is embarking into driving the RPA-led digital transformation of its F&A function.

Procure to Pay:

  • Purchase order entry and delivery
  • Vendor verification and setup
  • Vendor master-data management
  • Vendor queries/helpdesk
  • Invoice receipt and classification
  • Invoice data extraction
  • Invoice data entry and interface
  • Two and three-way purchase order/invoice/receipt matching
  • Non-purchase-order invoice coding
  • Vendor statement reconciliation
  • Accounts payable accrual journal entry
  • Expense compliance audit
  • Payment processing

Accounts Receivable:

  • Sales order entry
  • Customer data set up
  • Customer data management
  • Billing/invoicing
  • Collection activities (dunning)
  • Cash application
  • Credit risk management
  • Dispute verification and resolution
  • Chargeback management

General accounting:

  • General ledger and sub-ledger reconciliations
  • Bank reconciliations
  • Inter-company reconciliations
  • Manual journal entries
  • Reclassification journal entries
  • Fixed asset accounting
  • Inter-company settlements
  • Financial close activities

Tax, treasury, and compliance:

  • Data aggregation for tax liability
  • Convert data to the tax basis
  • Complete tax return workbooks
  • Prepare tax returns
  • File tax returns and payments
  • Tax accounting entries

Financial planning, analysis, and reporting:

Data aggregation for reports Report preparation (including the below):

  • Trial balance and balance sheet
  • Profit and loss
  • Cashflow
  • Variance analysis
  • Management reports
  • Statutory/regulatory reports

Considerations for automation

A great place to start if you’re considering using RPA is to start by automating straightforward processes such as invoice data entry and cash applications. These are best suited to carry out proof-of-concept studies before beginning your RPA journey. You can follow this with other processes such as billing and invoicing, as well as customer and vendor data set-ups.

Moving on to general accounting processes, these are often fragmented as a result of being been generated from periodic and event-driven activities. Here, the best way to automate general accounting processes is to take a more agile and iterative approach to realize the most value from automating the process effectively.

Another consideration to make for general accounting activities, such as manual journal entries, is to use attended rather than unattended automation as these processes could require the need for expert judgment or a customized computation specific to the event or scenario.

The results of RPA can be dramatic

The results of RPA can be dramatic
The results of RPA can be dramatic

RPA: The onramp for artificial intelligence in the enterprise

RPA, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and other advanced cognitive technologies are complementary to one another. While pure RPA can perform rule-based repetitive tasks, this can be enhanced by embedding AI, ML, and cognitive technologies.

This acts to not only futureproof RPA but to be the onramp for AI into the enterprise. It often starts with AI computer vision to allow easier, faster, and more stable automation for virtualized environments. This is particularly useful for situations where traditional business process management methods that use SAP, Flash, PDF, and images, etc. fail or are difficult to use.

Exception management is another area of interest. UiPath is already using machine learning to enable robots to self-recover from simple exceptions. More advanced algorithms for exception management can be created by closely monitoring employee behavior to create robots that can solve complex exceptions.

Case in point: cash applications

Cash applications are a good example to illustrate how RPA can be complemented by cognitive and machine learning technologies.

The inputs to a cash application typically involve open or aging receivables and payments received, which are imported into suspense accounts from bank statements to be applied and cleared.

Other inputs into cash applications include payment remittance advice instructions from customers in the form of email notifications, supporting documents attached to checks as well as free-form messages or notes within bank transactions.

In these situations, cognitive and machine learning technologies can carry out a variety of actions. These include extracting payment information from images of checks, extracting and curating remittance information from emails and the supporting documents and bank transaction messages, as well as matching the payments to open receivables using the remittance information.

In these situations, RPA is used to process the open receivable using information from the accounting system, to fetch bank statements and feed them into the accounting system, and to automate the process of matching payments to open invoices and then closing them.

While many organizations using SAP, Oracle, or another modern ERP have partially automated the cash application process using native features of these ERPs and have achieved a certain degree of automation (typically around 40-50%), there are still a large number of exceptions or fall-outs that require human effort. This is where RPA, combined with AI and ML comes to the rescue to take the percentage of automation much further (to around 80-90%).

How UiPath RPA works

UiPath has spent over a decade developing one of the world’s leading RPA platforms. Our Enterprise RPA Platform consists of three products: UiPath Studio, UiPath Robot, and UiPath Orchestrator.

The studio is the designer tool used to create diagrams of business processes. Based on the Microsoft Workflow Foundation, and visually similar to Microsoft Visio, Studio is an advanced visual process modeling tool. It allows users to drag-and-drop different elements in a process to design different types of workflows, sequences, flowcharts, and transactional business processes.

The studio contains a built-in library of over 300 predefined actions such as clicking and typing that allow it to interact with a variety of desktop applications, web browsers, and OCR engines.

The studio is also designed to work with all types of e-mail clients including SMTP, IMAP, and POP3 Server-based ones such as Gmail, Outlook, and Exchange. The predefined activities are great at reading e-mails, downloading attachments and composing, and sending new e-mails.

The great thing about Studio is that users don’t need to know any coding. They can simply use the record feature and carry out a task and the tool will automatically create a workflow that can be amended visually.

UiPath Robot runs the processes designed in Studio in the same way that a human user would. It can work either by assisting the human user or completely autonomously without supervision for virtual or remote environments.

UiPath Orchestrator is a web-based platform that allows users to manage all the robots they’ve created, using the platform to enable remote control, monitoring, release management, and centralized scheduling of the robots.

Make automation a priority

Digitalization is the first step in preparing modern organizations for the digital world, but once it becomes the norm, gaining a true competitive edge will require a lot more. By making automation a priority, accounting and finance departments can position themselves to lead this transformation.

Source: UiPath: Robotic Process Automation

Thomas Apel Published by Thomas Apel

, a dynamic and self-motivated information technology architect, with a thorough knowledge of all facets pertaining to system and network infrastructure design, implementation and administration. I enjoy the technical writing process and answering readers' comments included.