- RPA is just one piece of the automation puzzle. Conversational interfaces and machine learning also play an important role.
- Automation is the digital amplification, not digital disruption, of people in business.
- Automation is more of an opportunity than a threat to finance professionals
A recent CA ANZ survey about Robotics Process Automation (RPA) asks, Are you robot ready? Founder of automation startup Enlift and ex-Director at EY Jamie Cassidy shares his insights on the challenges and opportunities for finance professionals, and how automation can be the digital yin to the human workforce’s yang.
Cassidy says “there’s a lot of hype about RPA and fear about automation replacing people’s jobs, but if you look at RPA through a financial lens there are plenty of opportunities to automate, enabling accountants to perform tasks with high accuracy and speed.
Even when automated a lot of those same finance processes will still require some human involvement; it’s just about the nature of the work the humans do being different to the things we automate.”
RPA is just one piece of the automation puzzle, he says. Conversational interfaces, such as chat bots, can be hugely responsive, and effective at engaging teams and customers.
“You can add value to any business through better engagement with customers, both internal and external. And how many businesses don’t have customers?”
A case in point is when Cassidy communicated via an airline’s chat bot to reschedule a flight which the airline had cancelled at short notice. It was a really quick and efficient process and he was then passed on to a human operator to finalise the details the chat bot couldn’t do. The whole customer experience was seamless and restored his trust in the airline.
Benefits of RPA
RPA is the deployment of software programs, referred to as “robots” which can execute repetitive, rules- driven tasks in the same way humans do today. RPA is quick and relatively cheap to deploy and can provide a number of different benefits:
- Efficiency. It’s cheaper, and significantly faster than people. A robot will work 24/7 and once you've "trained" one robot to perform a task they all can do it making it easier to scale up and down to meet busy periods - particularly relevant to Finance teams.
- Quality. Mistakes in Finance teams can be expensive and damaging. Robots follow the instructions you give them with 100% accuracy - no more fat fingers or human errors.
- Speed. The shorter time it takes to react to fraudulent behaviour, respond to customers, the monthly close process, the time to prepare reports or having the capability to carry out tasks such as reconciliations or management reporting on a daily basis rather than weekly or monthly basis.
- People. It’s counter intuitive, but robots aren’t the enemy. Accountants are highly qualified people but a lot of what you spend your time doing doesn't make the best use of your skills and knowledge. By automating the mundane operational parts of your role you shift the focus onto more challenging and impactful work; resulting in a happier, better supported and more engaged finance workforce.
Digital amplification and the automation combined workforce
Robots are in people’s consciousness. The problem is “digital disruption” strikes fear into people’s hearts because it’s perceived largely as a threat, rather than an opportunity. Whereas, Cassidy is a firm believer that automation shouldn’t be feared, because it’s a tool to support accountants and many other industries, rather than just replace them.
It’s not really “digital disruption” but rather “digital amplification”, he says, as that’s what automation will do. Converge and disseminate skills, information and resources for the benefit of businesses and their clients.
“Automation is the digital amplification, not digital disruption, of people in business.”
Robots won’t replace many accounting systems, Cassidy says, such as the core general ledger, procurement and FP&A tools. Rather, “automation will enhance our work and do the stuff we don’t want to do quicker and more accurately.”
There are some things only humans can do, he says, such as business partnering, developing relationships, the derivation of strategy, judgement and decision making, which are made through human experience. “Automation doesn’t replace common sense.”
Cassidy compares automation to diversity and inclusion in the workplace, in that automation creates a combined workforce, where the convergence of human skills with technologies creates a more efficient environment.
Attitude towards automation depends to a large part on people’s age. He observes that the expectations of the young generation of finance professionals coming up through the ranks “expect to be doing the fantastic stuff, not the low-level tasks, which, they realise are best left to automated processes.”
Automation is not our enemy
Resistance to automation is not new, it’s been on people’s radar for the past half a century. Cassidy’s viewpoint on this is that in the same way we should strive to ground our business decisions on data we should look to history and consider what has gone before when shaping strategy and direction.
Hence, says Cassidy, the words from Lyndon B Johnson in 1964 as part of his Remarks Upon Signing Bill Creating the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, still have direct relevance today:
“Automation is not our enemy. Our enemies are ignorance, indifference, and inertia. Automation can be the ally of our prosperity if we will just look ahead, if we will understand what is to come, and if we will set our course wisely after proper planning for the future.”
What’s different today, says Cassidy, is Johnson was referring to the machination of manufacturing and farming, which provided great benefits, but at high investment. Whereas, today the investment in automation is low and within easy reach of all, and the speed and scale at which technology is occurring is unprecedented and the benefits far wider-reaching.
Automation is happening now, particularly in Australia, and New Zealand also have the same challenges. To not embrace it means risking falling through the gap between those who have it and those that haven’t.
How do leaders of all levels equip themselves with the tools to manage change?
The biggest challenge and obstacle is end vision, says Cassidy. When we have automated a lot of the purely operational aspects of what we do we need to have a vision for what the new world looks like, for example, better business partnering. So, how can you retain knowledge and safeguard your skills? And how is automation going to change the future of work with regards to leadership?
Some of the answers to these questions lie with how open business leaders are to change and innovation.
“In Australia, we have to do something about innovation,” says Cassidy. "Well-established countries tend to have a culture where we’re more scared of losing than we love winning,” and this underpins the pervasive fear of robots and automation as a threat.
That’s why he founded Enlift; he spotted an opportunity to build innovation and to help businesses benefit from digitising their workforces.
“The speed of change occurring means it’s not good enough to be a follower, he says. “An innovation mindset is a real obstacle to progress in Australia.”
An insurance company that Cassidy works with is mandated to innovate, it invests 10% of its operating budget in innovative projects. A CFO’s role is about innovating, he says. “The challenge is changing an organisation’s mindset, and having the tools to manage the change and transform.”
Disruptive Technology Conference
Deep dive into critical topics including RPA, cyber security and more at the premier technology event for future focused leaders. Secure your seat now.Register here