It’s time to take an Amazonian approach to technology in Finance

By Andy Burrows

With all the scare stories about “robots taking our jobs”, it’s easy to get the impression that we’d rather have robots doing jobs because they’re better than us.

Recently, I had to do a 2-minute presentation on the subject of why Finance should pursue automation opportunities. And I was given a PowerPoint slide with 10 or so bullet points full of buzzwords, telling how automation can reduce cost, improve customer satisfaction, improve consistency and traceability, support strategic platform upgrades and accelerate innovation, amongst other things.

Even my own eyes glazed over as I started to talk it through, so I cut to the real point.

Forget the buzzwords!

Forget the buzzwords. Humans are better than robots!

Robots don’t have intelligence.

Robots don’t interpret anything.

Robots don’t take action on information.

Robots don’t make strategies.

Robots don’t care if they win or lose.

Robots do:

Do repeatable, programmable, computer-based tasks…

On time…

Every time…

And very fast (like a glorified macro!)

(And keep a record of everything they’ve done, etc, etc)

That allows humans to get on with being intelligent, interpreting information, making strategies, taking action… and enjoying winning!

It’s not about value adding

And automation isn’t all about reducing human touch on “non-value-adding” tasks.

Frankly, there are no such things as “non-value-adding” tasks (at least not intentionally). To put it bluntly, if an activity isn’t value-adding then it shouldn’t be done at all by humans or robots!

 

Even processing a supplier invoice is value-adding, because it helps keep the business going. And yet we’d still automate it.

And even if you take the most complex, brain taxing, modelling, if a computer could do it for us, we’d love it. Like in the sci-fi movies, like Star Trek, like Knight Rider (!).

When all is said and done, “value” is in making the lives of humans better. And if we can do that quicker and cheaper, we can help more people, and help people more.

So, let’s not get sidetracked with trying to ascertain which activities are value-adding and which aren’t. Automate anything you can automate!

Automation is nothing new

And yet, as I’ve said elsewhere, the reality is that, in spite of the hype around Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence, automation is not new.

When I started my career, we were just starting to get personal computers on every desk in the office. When I trained in public practice, we had one shared computer in each room, which was for the final bit of accounts preparation. Everything else was done on paper. And the accounting records we examined and used were on paper.

Within a couple of years, every desk had a computer, we had spreadsheets, and some people even had laptops. Soon everyone was on the internet and email became a thing.

I don’t remember being afraid of that. It helped me to do things quicker and more accurately. And it enabled me to do stuff I couldn’t do before – financial models, more complex analysis, forecasting.

Linking spreadsheets, macros and Visual Basic made things even quicker. We took every opportunity to cut out keystrokes.

What is RPA and AI but a continuation of the drive to a) let machines do whatever we can get them to do, and b) give ourselves the ability to do bigger and cleverer things?

The difference with digital

That said, there is something new about digital technology. And that is the scale of the opportunity. And I put that in two categories – the volume of solutions, and the rate of change.

And those things require a different mindset and approach.

We can’t (any longer) just start by identifying a problem, then find a type of solution, assess the different flavours (SAP, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, etc), decide and then implement. There are too many solutions to choose from, overlapping technologies, and the number of products is growing all the time.

It seems to me that the current climate requires more innovation in our approach.

In a sense, innovation can be described as solutions looking for a problem, rather than the other way around (which is our more natural inclination).

What I mean is that innovation and “digital disruption” happens when someone sees something new and wonders how it could help them.

For instance, I guess Amazon saw the internet and thought, “how can we use that to sell stuff to people?” Then they saw smartphones, iOS and Android, and thought, “how can we use that to sell more stuff to people?” They started with a solution and found new ways to apply it.

What does that mean for Finance?

My suggestion is that it means we need to make sure we have people in the Finance function whose job it is to stay abreast of whatever new technology is out there. And they should be given the time and budget to experiment and to find ways to improve what we do by using it. And they should go around chatting about ideas with everyone in the team.

One example I saw recently was where a Finance Systems team had been playing around with some new functionality, and got talking about it to someone in Finance who was struggling with some clunky overhead reporting. What resulted within a few months was an interactive pdf containing all the different cuts of overhead reporting that the exec needed – three pages rather than 30. It saved a lot of time and spreadsheet manipulation, and enabled some really focused insight.

This is the kind of thing we have to do. In this day and age, with global competition and the pace of change, our businesses depend on us to keep getting better through innovation (i.e. trying out cool new stuff!).

Conclusion

To conclude, there’s a certain irony in the implications of the fact that humans are better than robots.

The first implication is that, rather than shunning and fearing automation, we should automate whatever we can, so that we have more time to do the things that only humans can do.

The second implication is that, in considering areas for automation, there is no need for a distinction between “value-adding” processes and “non-value-adding”. We should automate whatever processes can be automated whilst making economic sense.

And whilst automation is not new to the Finance function – much as some people talk as if it is – there is a sense in which the new wave of digital solutions, RPA and AI, bring new challenges and new opportunities.

These new opportunities suggest the need for a new way of working with technology in Finance. However, it’s not the “let’s all jump on the next bandwagon” type of approach.

What I’m suggesting, where possible, is the kind of approach that Jeff Bezos and Amazon take. We should try to make sure we’re aware of the technology available and coming to the market. And then we should consider how to make use of that technology to improve the Finance function – either in terms of efficiency or in quality of service to the business.

What this looks like in practice will differ depending on the size and structure of the Finance team. You could have a separate Finance Systems team, a separate “Finance Innovation” team, or you may simply encourage a continuous improvement culture.

The point is that it’s not enough to identify problems and look for solutions. You also have to identify solutions and look for the problems they can apply to. If we do that, we can truly say that we are innovative.

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