By Andrew Burgess, Director, Source
As a sourcing advisor, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that the robotic automation of business processes is set to fundamentally change the nature of the BPO market. The stark truth is that, to date, most of the real-life success stories have been in industry verticals such as telecoms, so, if robotic automation is to really live up to its full potential, then it should be able to have a significant impact on those generic business processes that are carried out across all industries, in particular finance and accounting, specifically accounts payable (AP).
To date, the biggest improvements in AP processing have been down to three approaches:
- Getting manual information into the system electronically e.g. scanning and optical character recognition
- Automating the processing as much as possible through workflow
- Standardising the data fields to improve interfaces e.g. electronic data interchange
Through our research at Source, we believe that robotic software automation presents significant further opportunities in a number of areas, including: cross-system manual processing, data gathering and reporting, reconciliation of matching errors, monthly account closure, bulk data updates and ERP IT processes. Some of the key ones are discussed below.
Cross-System Manual Processing
Typically, humans are used to providing a flexible interface between a number of different systems that are used in a process – this is colloquially referred to as ‘swivel chair processing’ – data is read by the human on one system or screen and keyed into another system, sometimes with additional steps inbetween.
Middleware can provide solutions to these interfaces but they are typically expensive and complex to implement. Software robots provide a much simpler implementation of the interface, carrying out exactly the same steps as the human but at a fraction of the price. This requires no or minimal system intrusion and provides 100% consistency with the process requirements.
For example: Barclays Bank work with robotic automation software has resulted in a £175 million p.a. reduction in bad debt provision in their Accounts Receivable function and over 120 FTE saved.
Reconciliation of Matching Errors
One of the most manually intensive processes in the finance function, and in AP particularly, is the reconciliation of errors due to incorrect matching of data between documents. Because this process requires inputs from different systems is inherently non-standard in each case and can require some judgement, it is usually carried out by humans.
By using inputs from other data sources, processing different matching options far faster, and applying semantic reasoning, robotic software automation can replace much of the reconciliation task, thus significantly reducing the number of people required.
For example, the excess queue procedure at the Co-operative Bank is carried out daily to accept, reject and return direct debits, cheques and standing orders. Overnight BACS (Bankers’ automated clearing services) processing results in a daily ‘queue’ of customers with payments due to leave their accounts and with insufficient funds to meet these payments. A nine-person team in the bank would have the daily responsibility of manually reviewing the 2,500 or so higher risk accounts. The automation of the entire procedure means that the bank now has a ‘virtual’ team of 20 people completing the workloads by 11am each day instead of a team of employees working to meet a 3pm daily processing deadline.
Monthly Account Closure
The monthly account closure is typically a complex process involving many data inputs, plenty of reconciliation and some elements of judgement. The number of people involved in the process is typically very high, and the time taken to close the accounts has a direct impact on the financial position of the company, but must be 100% accurate.
Previously, much of the reconciliation work has required human input across many data sources – robotic software automation combines a number of the approaches already mentioned into one critical process. By being able to access multiple data sources, make fast but relatively complex decisions (and to do that 24×7) software robots can significantly reduce the labour required, and the time taken, to close monthly accounts.
For example: a group of 250 NHS trusts have automated their month-end-close process. The process initially took 15 people 12 days; but it is now down to 2 people and half a day through automation.
With a software agent costing around one-third of a typical offshore Business Process Outsourcer FTE, and one-ninth of an onshore FTE, there are clearly some significant benefits to be gained from exploiting this new technology. Therefore, I would suggest a consumer of BPO services should be considering an ‘automation strategy’ as the best way forward. At the same time, I would urge the software vendors and BPO providers themselves to focus attention on this potentially huge opportunity. If you’d like to attend a free event on 27 November 2014 and hear from four speakers who have implemented RPA in their own organisations, then visit: http://www.source.co.uk/opinion/automation-blog/item/208-event-the-naked-truth-about-robotic-process-automation