Automating the finance function to unlock the value of your accountants

All too often it is the case that financial directors, accountants and other members of a company’s financial team are getting bogged down in dealing with tedious and time-consuming manual work, like updating spreadsheets and compiling weekly or end-of-month reports, instead of focusing on far more productive high value areas such as fraud detection, compliance and big data analytics.

In BlackLine’s latest research into the role of financial teams at medium and large UK enterprises, it was revealed that over one-third (34%) of UK business decision-makers surveyed still feel that their CFOs and accounting departments are an underutilised resource and under-valued in their role to the business.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to business leaders that automating their financial functions frees up their accountants and gives them the time and resources to upskill and act as real business partners to the organisation.

Investment in the right tools and technologies to properly automate your financial processes is, essentially, an investment in your FD or CFO and his or her team. Or, to put it a slightly different way, it’s an investment in technology that augments jobs and creates new opportunities.

Human versus machine: the value of continuous accounting

Traditionally society views robotics, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in terms of “human versus machine”.

Taking a continuous accounting view, however, is more a case of automation enhancing and assisting the key financial executives within a business. It’s a really great example of technology being employed to help CFOs to become the successful CEOs of the future.

>See also: Automating the finance department

So how do you define continuous accounting? By 2020, Accenture predicts that productivity in finance will increase by a factor of 2 to 3 times, with organisational costs declining by 40% over the same time.

Financial teams will be freed up to spend considerably more time on data analysis within the organisation, from around 25% of their time currently to around 75% in the future.

This major transformation is due to the automation of financial processes and the rapid digitisation of the accounting function over the coming years.

As finance shifts from manual accounting methods to agile and flexible cloud-based solutions, we also see 82% of CFOs embracing cloud applications as the future for their business.

For a finance team to focus on what’s really important to add value to the business – accurate, real-time reporting and analysis of financial performance – requires intelligent deployment of technologies such as cloud computing, mobile, automation and analytics.

All in, continuous cccounting means far smoother workloads, more manageable workflow, fewer weekend or end-of-week “crunches” and consistently accurate data and visibility of all the relevant financial information that the business needs at any given time.

Adopting AI and automation: augmenting the future of UK Plc

Check, for example, the government’s Science and Technology Committee’s recent report for a wider picture of the potential economic and social implications of ‘Robotics and Artificial Intelligence’ for the UK.

A number of mainstream national news outlets picked up on that report, focusing on the kinds of skills we need to develop in a “post-AI world” (including BBC News, the Financial Times and the Daily Mail) and with understandably good reason.

It makes for fascinating reading, particularly with what is already known from our research into and experience of the benefits that automation can bring to F&A departments.

In particular, that recent government report has some interesting insights on productivity, employment changes, and the augmentation of existing roles. And perhaps most encouragingly, instead of the overly negative focus (i.e. on headcount reduction) that is often associated with automation and AI in the enterprise, the report looks at the longer-term potential.

>See also: Why finance directors should be embracing the robotic revolution

“Instead of focusing on job creation or destruction, some witnesses considered the potential for robotics and AI to support, or augment, existing roles,” the report notes. Interestingly, and as I intimated above, Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft, also thought that by framing the “conversation [as] all about humans versus machines” the discussion began “on the wrong foot”.

Technology, according to the senior Microsoft executive: “had never been about humans versus machines…the story, certainly from our perspective, in the personal computer revolution is about how we augment humanity and how we enable human beings to rise up and achieve more than they could on their own.”

It’s consistently worth reiterating this point to all of customers and potential customers, otherwise there are far too many discussions around the future of automation, within the finance department, for example, which are framed and dominated by talking about cost-cutting and reducing headcount.

With all of the obvious and negative implications that discourse entails.

Automating financial departments

Resistance to change in organisations is perfectly natural and understandable, but it is necessary to start educating FDs, CFOs and CEOs on the benefits of the culture change  – which is essentially replacing spreadsheet-based manual processes with automated, cloud-based ones. The potential business benefits are huge.

Continuous accounting, driven by adept, skilful and technologically savvy adoption of mobile, cloud and automated data analysis is going to have major, hugely positive implications for the future of UK organisations.

>See also: When technology meets finance: how the CFO can become an innovation catalyst

Simply put, the best accountants and most talented CFOs will benefit from these technologies, with the potential to put them on track to a CEO role.

Surely, it is in unlocking and developing the potential of the best talent, in accountancy and elsewhere in British business, instead of letting it fade or burn out due to the boredom of repetitive manual tasks or the pressure of “crunch” style traditional reporting processes, that is clearly the key to building a successful 21st-century economy.

Automate, innovate and use technologies to unlock the true potential of your finance team. Let your accountants focus on what matters. Allow them to become exceptional accountants.

And they, in turn, will help your business grow. That’s the basic message we always try to put across to our customers.


Sourced by Andy Bottrill, regional vice president at BlackLine

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...