The Accounts Payable Association Annual Conference 2018 - The Rise of the Robots
Having spent nearly 30 years in the Accounts Payable industry, it was great to attend the second annual conference to meet all the AP Ninjas (their term!) and see just what is going on.
It was fascinating to see a room of over 200 people, passionately engaged in making AP a key value-added department. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that a key theme was that the “Robots were coming”. Of course, I have been known to espouse the benefit of the odd robot! So, it was heart-warming to see an industry I am passionate about embrace the technology.
I was also stunned to chat to quite a few AP departments that are still paper based and haven’t yet taken on the very mature technology of invoice data capture and smart business process workflow tools to add onto their core accounting system. Crikey guys, it is 2018, this technology is old enough to get married and have children!
So where do robots fit into the AP department?
Are they going to replace all those 200 Ninjas, and next year we will have a room full of robots? ... I somehow don’t think so.
To answer this, I had the privilege of listening to Tim Frazer talk in the break out session on the future of AP, and he eloquently highlighted that AP teams should look for a single technology that combines business process automation, document capture and robotics as a single solution. Many AP teams are worried that if they choose different vendors for each, there is the need to integrate three new technologies into their accounting system with all that implied cost and risk - and every time one of them needs to be upgraded then you run more risks of downtime and cost. However, with the right technology stack you have all the Lego bricks in place to build ever improving solutions to rocket your AP department to the next level. We looked at all the survey results from what AP leaders and Finance Directors want, and this single solution can address all the needs straight away.
I was also put on the spot and had 5 minutes to build a live robot, so of course I grabbed a poor victim from the audience and they built the robot for me. Unbelievably, in 5 minutes we had built a robot that punched out to an external portal and brought the correct data into AP (you can watch as we build a robot in this recorded webinar).
Last year, according to Billentis, the worldwide volume of invoices reached over 500 billion, with only 8.4% exchanged electronically.
This means that invoice volumes are growing annually by at least 5%. That is another 25 billion invoices that we have no control over, no set standards on how they will be presented, but we will still need to control and manage into our organisations.
Another area highlighted, was one of the most insidious answers to try and help the situation, which is the rise of the Portal! All finance managers who look after AP and AR reading that sentence are shuddering. Vendors’ portals are great for the vendors. We are going to put all our data on our own web site in a way that is easy for us.
We already have to deal with all our suppliers sending myriads of different formats of invoice across a myriad of communication channels and now we also have to have members of our team to log onto a portal and manually interact with it. Yuck. Now multiply this across potentially hundreds of portals and you can start to see the scale of the problem.
In one survey, 39 percent of respondents already had a supplier portal and 49 percent planned to implement one in the next few years. Noooooo.
Supplier portals create efficiencies for buyers to process and pay invoices, but a mass network of portals for suppliers to manage creates inevitable inefficiencies as well. Whether or not you operate a stand-alone portal for your suppliers, more than likely your business navigates a disconnected network of web portals to manually submit invoices and other information in order to capture revenue each month.
One AR Director recently told Kofax that they manually submit over 10,000 invoices to more than 40 portals and wrote off over $2 million in “bad invoices” simply because the invoices couldn’t be submitted in the right format. So, you might think that having a vendor portal helps you, but the quid pro quo is that your customers are getting their own back and setting up their own portals to inflict on your colleagues in Accounts Receivable.
Which ever side of the coin you are on, there is a simple answer ... a robot
In our session, myself and a complete stranger built a live working robot in 5 minutes that logged onto an external portal and downloaded normalised data.
Logging in: A robot can be scheduled to begin work at any time of day, or when invoked by another task or workflow. The robot logs into a web portal or series of portals using any authentication required, such as the URL, username and password.
Gathering data or documents: The robot locates the data or documents it’s tasked with. This may include navigating to new documents since its last visit, or to new fields of interest for data entry or indexing.
Sending data to the next step: The robot executes the next step dictated by the process definition. For example, it may forward invoice PDFs to an email address, enter the information in another application or initiate a task in financial processing software.
The benefits are compelling
Improved operational performance: Robots work 24/7, don’t make mistakes, and follow your exact process, every time. (Even the most hardworking professional humans intend to follow processes, but the average human makes an error in 7 out of every 100 steps). Robots deliver consistent 100% accurate data.
Better business outcomes: Cost savings, real time access to data and better cash flow from faster processing of receivables and payables are just a few strategic advantages of web vendor portal automation. And once your robotic process automation solution is deployed for this use case, the benefits will drive additional investments.
Happier employees: Speaking of those hardworking humans, logging into dozens or even hundreds of portals to retrieve or upload information such as invoices is a monotonous and repetitive task. In spite of the notion that robots will replace humans, the truth, and proven outcomes for RPA initiatives we have seen, is that they elevate workers from transactional to more strategic tasks.
So next year the APA conference will still be full of humans, but those that have embraced robotics, will be happier, have more efficient departments and have a more strategic role in their organisation. What’s not to love about that!
Digital Transformation Expert