Sometimes it takes a while for technology to fundamentally change how work is done. That’s because several innovations usually have to come together before a transformation can occur. For instance, Karl Benz created the first practical motorcar in 1885, but consumers would have to wait until the 1920s for the modern automobile. Computerized accounting systems originated in the 1950s but it’s only now that technologies have evolved and come together to fundamentally change how work is done.
I recently attended BlackLine’s annual user conference. The company aims to automate time-consuming repetitive tasks and substantially reduce the amount of detail that individuals must handle in the department. The phrase “the devil is in the details” certainly applies to accounting, especially managing the details in the close-to-report phase of the accounting cycle, which is where BlackLine plays its role. This phase spans from all the pre-close activities to the publication of the financial statements. The non-practitioner is likely unaware of the hair-curling amount of essential detail that the finance and accounting organization must handle in the close-to-report. Beyond its toll on efficiency, the time and attention involved in performing this work manually bedevils departments’ attempts to become a more strategic partner to the rest of the business.
Topics: automation, close, closing, Consolidation, control, effectiveness, Reconciliation, CFO, compliance, Data, controller, Financial Performance Management, FPM, Sarbanes Oxley, Accounting, reconcile
Robots of the physical sort are not about to take over finance and accounting but we have arrived at the age of “Robotic Finance”. I coined this term to focus on four key technologies with transformative capabilities: artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotic process automation, bots and natural language processing and blockchain distributed ledger technology. Embracing these technologies will enable any department to redefine itself as a forward-looking strategic partner to the rest of the company.
For several years, I’ve commented on a range of emerging technologies that will have a profound impact on white-collar work in the coming decade. I’ve now coined the term “Robotic finance” to describe this emerging focus, which includes four key areas of technology: Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), robotic process automation (RPA), bots utilizing natural language processing, and blockchain distributed ledger technology (DLT), each of which I describe below. Robotic finance will have a disproportionate impact on finance and accounting departments: I estimate that adoption of these technologies potentially will eliminate one-third of the accounting department’s workload within a decade.
Robotic process automation (RPA) relies on programming or the application of analytical algorithms to execute the most appropriate action in an automated workflow. RPA enables business users to configure a “robot” (actually, computer software) to interact with applications or data sources to process a transaction, move or manipulate data, communicate with other digital systems and manage machine-to-machine and man-to-machine interactions. This technology is gaining increasing notice by finance departments, with good reason: RPA represents an important step beyond simple process automation in that it uses software to execute routine but complex workflows that require judgment. Rather than making an individual check-off a step in a routine approval, a robotic system applies an algorithm that decides the next step. The system thus does what people spend an awful lot of their time doing every day: making judgments that most of the time could be done by a machine.
Workiva’s Wdesk, a cloud-based productivity application for handling composite documents, will have a larger role to play as companies adopt new revenue recognition standards governing accounting for contracts. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which administers Generally Accepted Accounting Principles in the U.S. (US-GAAP), has issued ASC 606 and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB), which administers International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) used in most other countries, has issued IFRS 15. The two are very similar, and both will enforce fundamental changes in accounting for contracts.
Kofax offers Kapow, robotic process automation (RPA) software used to acquire information from a range of sources without human intervention and without having to write code. These sources include websites, applications, unstructured documents, data stores and desktop spreadsheets. RPA software does repetitive, low-value work that otherwise may be performed by person. It saves time in these tasks, completing them sooner and freeing skilled individuals to concentrate on work that utilizes their skills to the fullest. One of the earliest uses of software robots was “Web crawling,” which automated rapid collection of data posted on websites, for example, prices and locations. This was the Kofax Kapow’s original purpose, but its scope has expanded. When used to gather information from multiple applications, the software precludes the need for setting up and maintaining a separate data store. This saves time and money while ensuring that the information has come from the authoritative source and that there is no latency in the data. Rather than taking the time to write a program with broad applicability, a robot can be quickly configured to perform a specific task in a way that mimics how an individual does the job.
SYSPRO is a 35-year-old software vendor that focuses on selling enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems to midsize companies, particularly those in manufacturing and distribution. In manufacturing, SYSPRO supports make, configure and assemble, engineer to order, make to stock and job shop environments. The company attempts to differentiate itself through vertical specialization and its years of ongoing development, which can reduce the need for customization and cut the cost of initial and ongoing configurations to suit the needs of companies in these industries, thereby reducing the total cost of ownership. Worldwide its targeted verticals include electronics, food, machinery and equipment and medical devices; in the United States, SYSPRO adds automotive parts (original equipment and after-market) and energy. The company’s development efforts follow a design philosophy that balances its target customers’ need for software capabilities that are on par with larger enterprises with their resource constraints (chiefly limited financial resources and technical staffs). Its software can be deployed on-premises or in the cloud.
The imperative to transform the finance department to function in a more strategic, forward-looking and action-oriented fashion has been a consistent theme of practitioners, consultants and business journalists for two decades. In all that time, however, most finance and accounting departments have not changed much. In our benchmark research on the Office of Finance, nine out of 10 participants said that it’s important or very important for finance departments totake a strategic role in running their company. The research also shows a significant gap between this objective and how well most departments perform. A large majority (83%) said they perform the core finance functions of accounting, fiscal control, transaction management, financial reporting and internal auditing, but only 41 percent said they play an active role in their company’s management. Even fewer (25%) have implemented a high degree of automation in their core finance functions and actively promote process and analytical excellence.
Topics: Big Data, Planning, Predictive Analytics, Social Media, Governance, GRC, Mobile Technology, Office of Finance, Budgeting, close, Continuous Accounting, Continuous Planning, end-to-end, Human Capital, Tax, Analytics, Business Analytics, Business Collaboration, CIO, Cloud Computing, In-memory, Uncategorized, Business Performance Management (BPM), CFO, CPQ, Financial Performance Management (FPM), Risk, CEO, Financial Performance Management, FPM
Workday Financial Management (which belongs in the broader ERP software category) appears to be gaining traction in the market, having matured sufficiently to be attractive to a large audience of buyers. It was built from the ground up as a cloud application. While that gives it the advantage of a fresh approach to structuring its data and process models for the cloud, the product has had to catch up to its rivals in functionality. The company’s ERP offering has matured considerably over the past three years and now is better positioned to grow its installed base. Workday recently added Aon, the insurance and professional services company, to its customer list (becoming its largest customer to date) and reported that its annual contract value (ACV – the annualized aggregate revenue value of all subscription contracts as of the end of a quarter) has doubled since the second quarter of this year, albeit from a low base. This is an important milestone because for years the company’s growth has come from the human capital management (HCM) portion of the business, not financials. Workday has around 160 customers for its financials (more than 90 of which are live) compared to more than 1,000 customers for HCM.
Topics: Microsoft, SAP, ERP, FP&A, NetSuite, Office of Finance, Operational Performance Management (OPM), Reporting, close, closing, Controller, dashboard, Human Capital, Reconciliation, Tax, Analytics, Business Intelligence, Cloud Computing, Collaboration, IBM, Oracle, Uncategorized, Business Performance Management (BPM), CFO, Data, finance, Financial Performance Management (FPM), Financial Performance Management, FPM, Intacct