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Scaling finance automation: How to unlock the full potential of digital transformation

Scaling automation in finance

In our most recent Future of Finance breakfast, senior finance leaders met to explore the challenges of scaling Finance digital automation.

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Most CEOs now see the digitisation of the finance function as the primary lever for transformation with the potential to deliver the same step-change in performance that outsourcing once delivered. Yet progress is slow. Currently, 78% of digital or robotics implementations in finance fail to deliver the business case. Unsurprisingly then, our global  CEO Survey 2018 found that one in three CEOs feel their finance organisations are not up to the challenge.

What can CFOs do to change this? How can they move beyond pilot initiatives to apply fully developed solutions that deliver tangible benefits for the enterprise? These are the questions that drew finance leaders to the latest in our series of Future of Finance breakfast events. Chris Conway, Head of Risk and Finance Reporting Solutions at RBS, joined us to share his experience of leading a major programme to digitise the bank’s finance function and establish a culture of innovation. 

Look for problems, not for solutions

Our experience is that the most common mistake finance organisations make with automation is to focus on solutions rather than problems. It’s all too easy to get caught up in vendor hype and embark on a pilot implementation without really clarifying the problem that needs to be solved. 

In typical pilots, a solution is applied ‘vertically’ – to a single sliver of a much broader, more complex process. Instead, organisations should look to apply solutions ‘horizontally’ (across end-to-end processes) and to address specific use cases. Each use case is likely to require a portfolio of technologies – robotic process automation, natural language generation, visual analytics or machine learning, for example – rather than a single technology solution from a single vendor. Ask yourself, how would you reimagine a business process, what would you do differently if this was a business start-up?

The RBS programme provides an example of these important principles. The bank has identified the production of commentary for financial reports where emerging technologies could yield important benefits in terms of time, cost, consistency, accuracy and insight. The bank is looking to solve this ‘problem’ by applying natural language generation (NLG) solutions from a range of vendors. Crucially, identification and analysis of the problem comes first, not the choice of vendor solution to solve it.

Change the narrative / “Fail fast but learn”

How finance organisations talk about automation can often generate false expectations on the part of the business and hostility from staff. A change in terminology and shift in emphasis can help change this. So, referring to ‘phases’ rather than ‘pilots’ implies a clear direction and destination beyond the first step and establishes the idea that automation will evolve in stages to solve a problem, rather than fix it at a single stroke.

Similarly, shifting the narrative away from ‘cost reduction’ to give greater emphasis to ‘user experience’ can change attitudes among finance staff. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) for example, can make work more rewarding for highly qualified staff, freeing them from hours of tedious reconciliation to undertake higher-skill activities that generate more value.

RBS found that talking honestly about how automation will change roles is key to engaging staff in innovation. The bank aims to give staff confidence that, if they bring forward ideas that disrupt away their existing roles, they will have the chance to move across to new, value-generating activities rather than being discarded. The bank supports staff through transformation with training and helps to identify where they fit best in the future organisation.

Finally, its ok to fail but you must learn from it. RBS has allocated funding to explore new automation techniques and is clear at the outset what the outcomes are – ranging from solving a specific business problem or simply understanding the application of emerging new technologies such as blockchain. Be very clear on why you are investing and what the outcome is. Also measure yourself against your outcomes – if it is not working then stop and reinvest somewhere else. Fail fast.

Let business users take the lead

Finance staff are right to be suspicious of automation when new solutions are imposed upon them. How can they be confident that new technology will change things for the better if they haven’t been involved in identifying and clarifying the problem the new solution sets out to solve? 

Finance organisations achieve greater success (and better solutions) when business users lead the way. These are the people who know where the pinch points are in day-to-day processes. Their first-hand knowledge is invaluable in helping address the first rule of automation: focus on the problem, not the solution.

The pressures of day-to-day work can make involving finance staff in development activity challenging. Different organisations find different ways of dealing with this. At RBS, business users involved in developing a new solution must commit 50% of their time to working with technical teams, with the bank allocating extra resource to cover business as usual. Other banks have freed up business resource for five days to focus on a problem – if you can’t solve it in five days then it is too big a problem. 

Forward together

Emerging technologies provide finance leaders with exciting materials from which to carve out the finance function of the future. The key to scaling up automation successfully lies in looking beyond individual solutions and focusing on developing an ecosystem of complementary technologies to address specific use cases. It is important that your in-house team builds business architecture capability and sets the direction supported by an ecosystem of external providers. As with any transformation, giving people the confidence to engage in innovation and persuading them to make the journey is an indispensable part of the process.

 

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