The impact of RPA across the finance value chain - Deloitte's Rieta de Villiers

From customer interface to back office support, automation has become an important issue that CFOs cannot afford to ignore. But will a failure to adopt automation mindset make your business extinct? Just how much efficiency and performance can you derive from automation and do you have the skills to take the next step?

These and other questions will be on the agenda at the fifth instalment of the CFO Summit series on 20 September in Sandton. Award-winning Omnia CFO Wayne Koonin and RMB Corporate Banking finance chief Storme McDonald will be on hand to contribute.

Rieta de Villiers, an associate director with Deloitte responsible for Technology Enablement in the Business Process Solutions service line and who has more than 20 years' experience in implementing technology solutions, weighs in on the automation debate and on robotics process automation in particular.

"RPA is computer coded, rule-based software that is used to automate rule-based, repetitive, high volume, transactional processes within an organisation that are typically being done manually by a human being. RPA replicates typical human interactions, for example, it can open email and attachments, extract information, go onto the Internet and log into web or enterprise applications, populate Excel spreadsheets, move files and folders, copy and paste, etc. RPA differs from other solutions, which work in the back-end or involves complex integration of systems at a data level, in that it operates in the user interface layer," she explains.

"CFOs are often technologically fatigued, because they've probably gone through large-scale ERP implementations and have a mulititude of systems in play. When you start talking about more automation, they are prone to thinking that it will involve another IT system that they need to make work in their environment and which might take long to implement before actual value is derived from it. The beauty of RPA is that it is relatively quick to implement and as it operates on the user interface layer, it does not actually impact your existing ERP or other solutions. This makes it quite appealing to CFOs."

She cautions CFOs not to go into an automation discussion with all guns blazing.

"Don't automate just for the sake of it. It's important that you follow a proper process through which existing finance processes are analysed to identify suitable candidates for robotic automation and to prioritise those areas with the biggest impact and payoff. We find that even mature and well advanced finance organisations, still have a large number of manual activities occurring. They sometimes don't even realise how time-intensive these processes are because they are so used to doing it that way."

De Villiers advises finance chiefs to look beyond the IT department when making decisions on automation and says she has noted that CFOs are more tech-savvy as they look to implement solutions that drive value creation and efficiencies.

"When implementing RPA it is shortsighted to engage solely with the CIO and the IT department - they need to be involved when it comes to selecting the right RPA technology, but the significant conversations need to be with the business owners as they understand the business processes and pain points. We are finding that CFOs are becoming more and more tech-savvy. They realise that they need to understand emerging technologies and the benefits that it can have in their environment in terms of reducing costs, making full use of limited resources and adding additional value and insight."

One of the key drivers for RPA is that you can free up time for your finance team to focus on more value adding activities. There is a high level of applicability for RPA across the entire finance value chain. Most organisations find that high levels of automation are possible especially in Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Fixed Asset Accounting, Travel and Expense Management and Management Reporting.

Implementing RPA in both core operations and support functions can drive revenue increase, cost reduction as well as cost avoidance. Some representative samples found in Deloitte RPA clients globally have shown that with the automation of high-volume, transactional processes the average time and associated cost to execute are reduced by 60% to 80% on average. The process is typically executed 15 times faster. With high risk processes, it increases compliance by reducing errors and the amount of time spent on rework and review by 70% to 90%. When utilized in data validation or reporting processes it ensures consistency and accuracy of data in reporting by eliminating manual errors by 80% to 90%. It also allows organisations to shift their Full-Time-Employees (FTE) focus from report generation to analysis by 30% to 60%.

Deloitte offers a 5-10 day opportunity assessment to determine which processes are optimal for automation and to receive business buy-in as to which processes should be prioritised.