Intelligent automation: Building the digital finance workforce of tomorrow

Multichannel capture and workflow technologies have gone a long way in helping accounting firms and finance departments across many industries make data work for their businesses and not against them. But they only go so far, and this is why there is a need for intelligent automation.

With financial process automation, organisations can now streamline and speed the purchase-to-pay, order-to-cash and record-to-report cycles by capturing and extracting information from any source, automatically routing it into an approval workflow, and transferring information into the system of record. However, although the ERP system is the powerful core of your customers’ financial operations, it has its limitations.

Most organisations are still forced to allocate employees to tackle the time-consuming, manual work to process information from third-party sources or to handle those tasks that are unique to their business. Therefore, even if financial process automation has already been implemented, there are likely significant workflow gaps and blind spots that can debilitate decision-making and ultimately strain customer and vendor relationships.

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Financial process automation is only part of the equation

Let’s assume an organisation has adopted financial process automation technology and perhaps built service-oriented architectures to enable applications to work together. Even though these systems can acquire data from multiple sources, enhancing and properly delivering the information likely requires some significant IT skills. The challenge is further compounded when dealing with automating processes that span across internal enterprise applications and external partner and customer systems, websites, online services, and so on.

The bottom line: financial process automation solutions are just not designed to link to multiple, disparate internal and external sources to access or integrate data, or the myriad of other manual tasks that are unique to a business.
Further complicating matters is the fact that as a business grows, with more data comes more complexity; it’s easy to revert to adding more resources to address the problems. But there’s a better way than throwing people at the issue or investing in expensive custom development to try to work around the ERP.

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Bridge the process automation gaps with RPA and intelligent automation

Enter robotic process automation (RPA), a powerful capability that seems purpose-built to bridge the automation gaps in finance and accounting processes.

RPA is designed to serve as a complement —not a replacement — to an existing finance and accounting automation workflow and can scale to meet the needs of any size accounting firm or organisational finance department. Because RPA sits on top of an organisation’s existing technology, it works well with installed core systems and can be implemented quickly to minimise operational disruption to day-to-day business. RPA uses software robots to mimic specific rules-based actions a person takes while working on a computer (but with 100% accuracy) and is ideal for covering those remaining tasks within workflows that have historically been difficult to automate.

Burnett: Look beyond RPA hype

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Use Case: Invoice Processing

A global telecommunications provider received 1,000 pieces of mail every day in AP, mostly invoice-related, and they relied on inefficient, manual processes.

Before process automation:

  • 14 days to process an invoice (on average)
  • 2-3% late fees after frequent inability to meet supplier payment terms

Now, dozens of software robots retrieve 9,000 invoices/month from 30 vendor websites and deliver the data to finance systems, ready for processing and payment.

After process automation:

  • 1-2 days to process an invoice
  • 400% increase in productivity

RPA works within enterprise systems, in desktop applications such as Microsoft Excel, and across external sources such as websites and web portals―for example, logging into a supplier portal to gather information or copying and entering data between applications. When you consider the entire finance and accounting spectrum, there could be from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of interdependent rules-based tasks that need to be performed in the same order, over and over.

This is where RPA shines.

In short, RPA empowers organisations to delegate the time-consuming, error-prone manual tasks to the robots, and elevate employees to focus on more strategic, higher-value tasks. Exactly where RPA is best applied within a particular organisation or department will depend on its most pressing current priorities and long-term goals.

Use Case: Procure-to-pay

A premier transportation provider enabled customers to request pick-ups via email; however, CSRs were tasked with manually re-keying shipment details from the emails into an internal scheduling application, as well as the shipper’s portal.

Before Process Automation:

  • Manually access 70+ partner portals—with different logins, navigation, transactions and reports
  • Cost-prohibitive: Each CSR could barely service 1 premium customer

RPA automatically reads emails, extracts details, enters them into the scheduling application and posts to the shipper’s portal within seconds of the initial email.

After Process Automation:

  • 100% of manual, routine work eliminated
  • 90% to 95% of employee time is reclaimed for higher-value work.
  • No costly transcription errors

Intelligent Automation – Realising the promise of true end-to-end digital transformation

Often, when your customers are asked to evaluate their automation priorities, a question emerges: What if I want to extend beyond bridging the manual task gaps in my workflow with RPA and take my processes to the next level of optimisation and productivity?

It’s clear that ‘onboarding’ software robots as the digital workforce to handle the repetitive, rules-based tasks that drain critical employee time and brain power continues to prove its value. Yet many organisations are finding that their business operations are becoming increasingly complex due to the vast amounts of unstructured data found in documents and emails, mobile transactions, electronic signatures, exception handling, biometric authentication/validation, case management and customer communications.

Addressing these process and data complexities requires a next-generation, unified intelligent automation platform that bundles analytics and cognitive technologies with RPA to automate more end-to-end processes, while driving greater value:

Consider the following example of the intelligent automation framework optimising a typical finance and accounting process:

  • Before intelligent automation, an employee keys in invoices or sales orders manually; this is inherently slow and introduces the risk of human errors and significant delays.
  • An Intelligent Automation framework ingests the data (any format); automatically classifies and extracts the data; integrates the information with the ERP (SAP, Oracle, etc.); analyses the performance of not just the platform capabilities and whether they executed as intended, but provides insights on the invoicing or sales order process; and delivers those real-time insights to executives in the exact format they want to receive for optimising financial and operational performance.

One financial services institution reduced invoice processing costs by 75%, generating $1.3 million in annual operating cost savings with Intelligent Automation.

The end result is a truly automated process workflow that connects the back office to the front office. Customers are empowered to not only scale, but also to measure the benefits and ROI of their process automation deployment.

Therein lies the real power of an intelligent automation platform: building a digital finance workforce of tomorrow where the collaboration between digital and physical workers results in greater organisational capacity and employee empowerment.

Chris Huff is  CSO of Kofax.  He develops and drives the company’s global strategic initiatives, intelligent automation thought leadership and cross-functional horizontal integration.

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