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All change: how automation can transform your finance function

How automation can transform your finance function

At our recent Future of Finance breakfast, senior finance leaders discussed how automation is not only poised to change the dial in terms of productivity and performance, it will also transform the role of the function itself.

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Greg Stinson

Partner, Accounting Advisory Services; Telecommunications, Media and Technology

KPMG in the UK

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How automation can transform your finance function

Robotic Process Automation, machine learning, natural language processing and other new technologies are taking much of the finance function by storm. Not yet, however, within financial reporting and technical accounting – where most organisations have barely scratched the surface in terms of experiencing the benefits.

At our recent Future of Finance breakfast, senior finance leaders discussed how automation is not only poised to change the dial in terms of productivity and performance, it will also transform the role of the function itself.

Here are seven things we learnt:

1.      It’s still all very old school

Financial reporting and technical accounting teams are very late adopters of technology, a cautious approach that echoes the findings of KPMG’s new report Automation of financial and technical reporting: Don’t get left behind. Some 80% of respondents in our survey still use Excel or Word to prepare their financial statements, while 70% opt for Word or PDFs to share accounting guidance with their finance teams.

2.      But there’s a huge appetite for change

We’re seeing a groundswell of interest in digital solutions to allow teams to improve quality, do things faster and more cost-effectively – particularly for high volume, low value type activities. There’s also a growing awareness of personal accountability amongst CFOs in terms of delivering the technology that’s fully fit for the finance function.

3.      Barriers to be addressed

The lack of engagement with automation has come from two main causes: insufficient understanding of the technology and a concern about the perceived time commitment involved.

4.      Start with the issue, not the solution

‘Forget about the technology at first and focus on what it is you want to solve,’ one finance leader advises. ‘There are lots of shiny things in terms of automation, but you need to think ‘what is the end point?’ That process involves conversations within the business as a whole to create a clear vision, strategy and end goal.

5.      Horses for courses in terms of the tools and timing

The tools to make a real difference now exist. But different organisations will inevitably take different journeys to automation. Some prefer to push forward quickly with employing the new solutions.  Others prefer a more softly- phased approach and implement only proven tools. ‘Change takes time for the people impacted,’ says one global finance head. ‘And you need to make your approach user-friendly and interactive.’

Many finance leaders, for example, are happy with the idea of accounts preparation software. One reports that ‘the impact has been enormous, way beyond our expectations’. At the same time, cutting-edge developments such as chatbots and natural language programming, on the other hand, often feel like more of a leap. But chatbots have huge potential in boosting productivity for low-value, high-volume work. The key is ensuring quality input at the start, then using machine learning to constantly improve the tool. ‘It’s a learning process for us,’ says one head of finance, ‘a test case for innovative thinking, fresh culture and mindset.’

6.      Don’t reinvent the technology wheel

Finance leaders are keen not to lag behind the rest of their own organisation in terms of technology. They stress the importance of leveraging solutions already being used elsewhere within the business to save costs and boost efficiency. ‘In the short term, the focus will inevitably be on point solutions rather than holistic end to end solutions at scale,’ says one, ‘but the goal ultimately is for a fully integrated response’.

7.      New skill sets, please

With less time spent on correcting records and providing internal information, the finance function will evolve as an invaluable business partner, feeding insights in to generate growth. One leader discussed a future state where data scientists would sit alongside accountants in a technical accounting function. There was unanimous approval that the future finance professional will require a high level of IT ‘savviness’.

Read more on Automation in financial reporting and technical accounting in our latest report here

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