Accounting and finance functions used to be more siloed, but now they are called on to leverage their expertise across every area of business, from identifying operational inefficiencies, to developing accurate business forecasting models, collecting valuable financial insights and tracking employee progress.
The dynamic accounting evolution using robotic process automation and intelligent automation to meet growing regulatory, audit, practice and corporate governance requirements, and transform core operational work, is great — but where do you start?
Finance and accounting operations are well-suited to intelligent automation. If you think about the many tasks undertaken in these departments, they often follow a clear set of rules, such as extracting data from invoices and entering it into the financial software. The first place to go to is one with defined workflows to speed up your throughput. If you have a process spanning multiple applications or interacting with other departments, this is a good candidate for intelligent automation. Also focus on the use of structured data so your team can target processes using well-defined data formats such as invoice form fields so RPA can work with more unstructured data formats as your automation advances.
When determining which automation to launch first, single out a high-volume, low-complexity process that will deliver compelling ROI and quickly prove the value of intelligent automation. Some business operations only happen occasionally, such as an unexpected audit. Processes and tasks like this can often be assisted — if not replaced — by intelligent automation.
Typically, ideal automation candidates include:
- Invoice processing;
- Accounts payable and receivable;
- Financial reporting;
- Payroll administration; and,
- Purchasing orders.
As your intelligent automation practice advances, the scope of automations expands considerably, including processes involving decision-making, utilizing unstructured or semi-structured data, those poorly defined with multiple variations, and much more.
However, it’s not all about reducing time on processes, or even improving the bottom line. As your intelligent automation matures, finance professionals can utilize their valuable strategic skills once relieved of their rules-based, procedural tasks. The core functions of the business continue, allowing the company to maintain its trajectory. People are still free to help the company make investment decisions, setting the business on a greater path to growth.
Wall Street to Main Street
While Big Four firms are leading this trend, many small independent accountants, midsized accounting firms, and in-house finance teams are still using traditional software packages to manage contract and payment analysis, payroll or tax record retention, and to oversee employee tax IDs.
While most average Main Street accounting firms still manage annual tax assessments for self-employed workers and bookkeeping services, today, they’re also multifaceted business champions in all areas, from delivering essential accounting and compliance issues to offering tax planning advice and long-term strategic consultancy.
Equinix, for example, which provides interconnected digital infrastructure for its customers, including 248 data centers located on six continents, used intelligent automation as part of its end-to-end automated source-to-pay process. Each year, $3 billion flows through purchase orders handled by this process. Digital workers pass work to one another as purchase requests, from first request and purchase order creation to validation.
Digital workers also close aged orders and help resolve emailed invoice disputes from over 6,000 global requestors. Executing 98% of vendor, employee and intercompany payments, digital workers have enabled the finance payables team to focus on issue resolution and strategic initiatives instead of manual work.
These changes have improved data accuracy, reduced errors, and help Equinix pay vendors faster. Equinix’s intelligent automation program has reduced operational costs (currently estimated at $7 million) and improved customer satisfaction.
The savings have been invested into strategic initiatives to enhance the business and employee experience, giving around 175,000 hours back to employees so they can focus on improving their skill sets and contributing to the business in new ways.
By adopting intelligent automation, finance teams are able to shift their focus from chasing paper to providing advisory and more profitable services such as financial planning, tax planning or business strategy. Firms can offer better value or are more cost-effective when it comes to business planning advice, finance raising, forecasting and management strategies.
Following the money
Another largely untapped area for intelligent automation is fraud detection. While detecting fraud often sits within special financial crime or operation controls units, particularly within the financial services industry, there is still opportunity for accounting firms, in-house teams or operations-led functions to consider how they can benefit from using intelligent automation in this space.
Imposter scams are on the rise. U.S. consumers lost nearly $8.8 billion to fraud in 2022, an increase of more than 30% over the previous year. Every year financial fraud impacts the reputation of affected institutions, with costs ultimately passed onto customers. The latest PwC Global Economic Crime and Fraud Survey reveals that in 2022, 51% of respondents experienced fraud in the previous two years, the highest level in 20 years of research. Globally, financial fraud is a $42 billion issue for large financial organizations, corporations and enterprises alike.
With identity theft, employment and insurance fraud on the rise, forensic accountants use their finance expertise, along with legal investigative techniques, to look within organizations for fraud, or financial irregularities, trace funds and identify assets, or validate losses. Intelligent automation is an additional weapon in the accounting armory. Forensic analytical skills are increasingly used in commercial negotiations. With greater demand for accountability and regulatory reform, forensic accounting has become more prevalent as the business environment has become more complex.
An example of this is Prudential, headquartered in London and Hong Kong, providing life and health insurance, and asset management to around 19 million customers in Asia and Africa. The company uses fraud detection bots to analyze transaction data and detect fraudulent activity. The automation can perform the same number of 100% approval check authorizations it would take 40 people to do in a year. Improving security for customers and ensuring Prudential’s 1,000 daily claims — worth around $100,000 — are 100% audit-compliant, it has also drastically reduced losses due to fraud. By using a mix of RPA and intelligent automation to automate mundane, highly repeatable tasks, Prudential’s finance and customer teams can spend more of their time focused on higher-impact high-value business activities.
Strategic remote accounting
By making data accessible and flexible in real-time for business owners and accountants, cloud-based automations are also impacting hybrid or remote accounting teams. With secure user authentication and an internet connection, cloud-based accounting teams can better access and view financial data and monitor transactions, making accounting possible and profitable from anywhere.
With intelligent automation performing automations or generating reports for teams, clients and contractors alike, timely financial analysis and strategic planning is error-free and more focused, leaving financial experts to make greater and more profitable use of their expertise across every area of any business.
The accounting function of the future
While accounting principles and processes have changed little in the last 200 years, automation and the cloud have transformed it from a siloed function to a strategic driving force. Assisted by intelligent automation, artificial intelligence and real-time data-driven technologies, finance teams who are able to benefit from more efficient workflows will reap greater benefits from streamlined accounting processes and play a role in their organizations. Companies that adopt these technologies — whether their teams are office-based or digital nomads — will be more resilient, agile and productive and enhance their competitive advantage in the market.