Could CFOs soon be embracing robots as part of the finance function?

In May 2015, the Wall Street Journal published an article which depicted a robot stepping into the finance department, while fired employees filed out the door. In his opening paragraph, senior editor Vipal Monga wrote about 80 clerks and salespeople who used to spend 3,200 hours a week tracking and paying for orders for thousands of goods at US firm Pilot Travel Centers

Today, there are only ten employees working 400 hours a week. This, he claimed, was due to a computer “robot” automating most of the processes.

“Robotics is evocative, it’s high-tech and most importantly, it is emblematic of what many see as the next natural step in the evolution of business process delivery,” said Jamie Lyon, co-author of a recent report by ACCA. “But by talking to finance leaders during our research, we found they are clearly not sure about the benefits of wholesale automation. Many still can’t understand what it really means for finance.”

However, CFOs are becoming increasingly curious about robots, Lyon said. The report’s aim was to find out what leaders thought about robots

It suggested that as with any technology, there’s a threshold that has to be crossed before robots can become mainstream in the finance department. It takes brave finance leaders to take the lead, said Kimberly-Clark’s Liz Ditchburn. “It’s about wanting someone else to cut their teeth on it before we embrace it. We like to go second, not first.”

According to Deloitte’s Peter Moller, scepticism about robotics is evident. The fact that robots have been overlooked thus far, he said, meant that either finance functions thought it wouldn’t work or they just didn’t know enough about it.

Taking the prior reason into account, Unisys’ Chris Gunning is of the belief that there’s more trimming that can be done at the edges. “I think it’s difficult at this juncture to really see what that next quantum leap is, but I don’t think we can ignore that digitalisation is upon us,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, shared service centres have leveraged automation, technology, and straight-through processing, so is robotics just more of the same with a different coat on, or is it something really more revolutionary? I think we don’t know what we don’t know.”

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Others see robotics as an aide, not necessarily a new approach to finance delivery. John Campbell of Shell claimed that he often wondered how robotics could help during tough reporting periods, where time pressures are high, people get tired, and as a result the quality of work drops. 

“Robotics may help at specific times, but it would not be embedded in the day to day operations,” Campell said. “I see a way to leverage it, but I suspect nobody’s going to want to bring it in as a main solution.”

Some finance leaders also call into question the cost of robots. Ditchburn suggested the current business case is still challenging. “I think a ninth of the cost is too expensive, Ditchburn said. “Let’s be honest about this; it’s just a computer program, so for the stuff that you don’t need robotics, you’re just running a computer program, so why is it being priced on a per robot per annum basis?”

Yet Moller believes that misconceptions about the cost versus benefit abound. Robots work twice as fast as a person and don’t stop, he explained. 

Genfour’s James Hall also cautioned finance leaders to look beyond cost. “When we talk about shared services, it’s not just transaction processing, it’s dealing with exceptions. We are also dealing with interfaces that haven’t yet, for whatever reason, been automated, and that’s where I think the benefit of robotics comes in.”

Despite her concerns about pricing, Ditchburn is becoming a convert: “I think there’s a huge opportunity, and my challenge for my delivery team is if anybody has got two screens on their desk in order to read data off that screen and copy data onto that screen, then there is an opportunity for robotics.”

Hall claimed robotics was an opportunity to make change in the way finance transactions are performed today. 

“We often debate what’s the right process to start with,” he said. “My view is that it doesn’t really matter; it just needs to have a meaningful impact in the organisation, and then robotics is taken up virally and really fast. One criterion I use is the avoidance of effort. If you can eliminate the need for the team to work evenings and weekends, you then develop a mind-set or a set of skills to understand where you can apply it, how you can apply it, and the controls to put it in and apply it safely.”

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