This article was first published in the January 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The majority of accountants say that robotic process automation (RPA) offers incredible opportunities for their organisations, but only a minority have found a way to begin implementing the technology.

This is the major finding from a global survey of more than 2,700 accountants, conducted jointly by KPMG and ACCA with strategic alliance partner CA ANZ. The survey’s finding was mirrored by an audience poll that was taken at the World Congress of Accountants in Sydney in November.

‘I believe that accountants have the skillset and the framework on which to build RPA and I think it’s a massive opportunity for the accounting profession – we should get out there and own it,’ says Rachel Grimes, outgoing president of the global organisation for the accountancy profession the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), who has personal experience of deploying RPA with her employer in Australia, the banking group Westpac Bank.

RPA is not as complicated or as daunting as it might first appear. It is simply software that is programmed or instructed by end users to perform high-volume, standardised, rules-based tasks. It automates the logical transfer of data within processes quickly and accurately, reducing the amount of time that accountants need to spend on mundane tasks.

Jamie Lyon, interim director of professional insights at ACCA, says: ‘The common assumption is that this technology is all about getting cost out of the finance team, but it’s really about how to improve control, how to speed up processing.’

RPA offers 24/7 operational capability, data accuracy and improved visibility of business performance. ‘It can really change the game, particularly for transactional finance work,’ says Lyon. ‘You can start to free up finance teams from repetitive work. And then when that is combined with the front end – particularly around analytical tools in the face of exploding data in the corporate environment – automation can transform the way accountants and finance professionals bring real value to the organisation.’

Love your robot

When seeking to deploy RPA, one of the most common barriers experienced by finance leaders is fear and resistance from the workforce. That’s hardly surprising given media speculation that robots will steal human jobs. A 2013 Oxford University study, which found a 93% probability that computerisation would lead to job losses for accountants and auditors during the next two decades, is commonly quoted.

But the reality of introducing RPA runs contrary to the media hype. Ali Mehfooz, global head of fund technical and finance services at AMP Capital, says staff engagement in a finance team in his organisation shot up after RPA was introduced. ‘Once we work with them and show them the benefits, people are quite excited about getting involved,’ he says.

Nikki McAllen, financial management partner at KPMG Australia, says staff engagement is the key to successful RPA implementation. ‘It’s about how you manage it and involve your teams from the very start,’ she says. ‘There is initially fear when you start talking about automating – not necessarily among qualified accountants, but certainly among team members who are doing transactional jobs; they are concerned about losing their jobs.

But what we’ve seen, especially among some of the younger generation, is teams embracing the opportunity of robotics, and moving on to become programmers and controllers. You’re getting more involved in solving the organisation’s problems, and actually feeling like a valued member of the team rather than just processing transactions. So I don’t think it’s something to be scared of. It’s a real opportunity to reinvent yourself.’

Proof of concept

A prudent approach to RPA adoption is to trial discrete business processes or projects before seeking a broader rollout. Identifying the right area of the business for trial can be critical. McAllen says: ‘We have seen clients start too big and choose the most complex problems, which often takes an awful lot of time to unpick, and sometimes you are having to fix the process before you automate it. That can derail your automation journey.’

On the other hand, selecting a business process that is too easy to solve can fail to deliver substantial benefits to the business. ‘That can leave the organisation relatively disengaged on the automation journey,’ McAllen adds.

RPA consultant Matt Kearney from NTT Data recommends thinking about what the impact could be outside the finance function. ‘You should look at what the opportunity is across the business, not just the finance area. You really need to be making your plans around where the best process opportunities are for all the business functions. Finance can be the leader and the evangelist in this process.’

Andy McLean, journalist, Sydney