June 24, 2019

6 Time-Saving Hacks for Finance Automation

Automation Solutions
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Automation is like exercise. Everyone feels compelled to say they want to do it. However, many people then follow up with the argument that they are too busy to do anything right now. Whilst one can debate whether being busy is a reason or an excuse for prioritising other things, there is no doubt that Finance staff are inundated with work.

Like exercise, however, your choices today in relation to automation will have a lasting impact in the future for you, your career and the competitiveness of your company. Finance is at a critical juncture. The role of the CFO and their staff is changing, from that of financial steward to influencer with a focus on strategy, data analytics and innovation. Today, you may not be able to differentiate between automation offerings - but what about 2, 5 or 10 years from now? The CFO that is willing to sacrifice time spent on BAU and invest time and energy in automation and analytics in the short term will be the one to reap the benefits in the future.

Finance teams often say that they are too busy with BAU to automate. Completely understandable. The questions are: when is Finance ever NOT busy with BAU? When are any of us NOT overloaded and overwhelmed? The aim should not be to wait for an “oasis type event” where you suddenly have spare capacity and time to automate. Instead, Finance needs to find ways to start automating while being busy with BAU.

For CFOs and finance leaders who are fed up with waiting, here are six time-saving hacks to allow you to start automating today.

1. Skip the over-the-top, strategic cliche. Start small.

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Like most industries, automation and analytics has a thriving ecosystem of software vendors, resellers and consultants. In order for the ecosystem to extract maximum value, there is a tendency for automation projects to become more strategic - particularly as you go to the bigger end of town. CFOs looking to automate can easily find themselves being presented with seven-figure proposals to review, document, re-engineer and streamline processes within their department. Notice how in the previous sentence, I didn’t say “automate”? Unless you have a strategic imperative to automate, this approach is only going to overwhelm you and your team.

Instead, start small. Most technology vendors offer free or cost-effective trials for their software. Either work directly with the vendor or use a reseller or consultant that is comfortable working in this way - i.e. starting with a small, simple PoC and scaling up the work (and cost) if and when needed. By starting small, you will dip a toe in the water and get a feel for automation. By slowly introducing the technology to your company and staff, you will create the momentum needed to push automation up the priority list and into the realm of being a habit for your team.

Tips for starting small:

  • Avoid the “Big Bang” approach to automation (unless that is your strategic imperative, though if that’s the case, then finding the time to automate should not really be an issue).
  • Leverage the low-cost entry points that most software providers offer. Start with a trial or PoC.
  • Pick the right process or use-case and get the best people involved (on your side). This point is further elaborated on below.
  • Work with resellers and consultants who are comfortable with starting small.

Set yourself up for a win. Pick the right process.

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The broad applicability of automation in Finance is both a gift and a curse. Automation can be readily applied to areas such as reporting, FP&A, reconciliations and more. Whilst this can help in creating a business case for automation, it can also overwhelm CFOs and their teams who are just looking for a place to start.

From our experience, automation succeeds either by solving an urgent process issue or by starting with a modest use case that is well suited to automation. Urgent process issues stem from regulatory or auditor demands or are aimed at addressing a recent incident (such as inaccurate data being shared with the market). The benefit of using such processes as a catalyst for automation is that they are often highly visible which helps generate support and a focus for the project to succeed.

Alternatively, look for processes that are:

  • Repetitive and predominantly data-driven.
  • Performed at least monthly.
  • Stable and unlikely to change during the automation project.
  • Well understood by the people doing the work manually.
  • Exhibit risks related to human error or key person dependency.
  • Subject to a regulator, auditor or customer scrutiny.

Picking the right process to automate can make the difference between success or failure. By starting with a modest use case, you maximise the chance of getting an automation win. In turn, this will help build excitement and momentum across your department.

Tips for getting a quick win:

  • Narrow down the “automation can do everything” conversation to specific, and ideally, urgent use-cases.
  • Pick processes that are repetitive, data-driven and stable.
  • Ensure the process you are automating is well understood by the subject matter experts.
  • Avoid the need to undergo significant re-engineering of your initial process. This should be apparent in the process that you pick (i.e. don’t pick a process that is already an absolute mess).

Get the right people involved. Encourage and protect them.

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If you are going to have any success with automating, you are not going to do it alone. You need competent, creative and accountable staff who will see automation through to its end. It is important to note, this is not measured by staff members putting up their hands to do some self-help training for a new automation tool or talking about how they would like to automate.

The people you need will demonstrate traits and qualities that are not typically learned from a book or online course. They possess a high sense of intellectual curiosity. They think about why they perform the steps of a procedure, not just how to perform the steps. Their thought patterns are logical and sequential. They are detail oriented whilst also understanding the big picture. They have a history of being reliable, completing tasks they say they are going to undertake (without you needing to follow up with them). You know exactly who they are (or if you are unlucky enough to not have such people in your team, rethink your team).

Keep the team small and nimble. You also need to encourage them while they automate. They will need the freedom to run with their ideas, make mistakes and learn. Finally, you will need to protect these staff from status quo managers who will kill any ideas that don’t fit into BAU. This could be done by giving them the authority to push back on lower priority deliverables and requests.

Tips for getting the right people on board:

  • Look beyond technical skills (as these can be easily learned). Look for traits and qualities such as inquisitiveness, out-of-the-box thinking and accountability (finishing what they start).
  • Keep your teams small and nimble to start.
  • Encourage and protect staff doing the automation. Give them the freedom to try, fail and learn. Protect them from status-quo managers.

Help your staff overcome their fear of automation. Paint a picture of what life will be like post-automation.

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If you were to go to any staff member and tell them that you are planning to automate some of their work, it would be foolish to NOT expect them to be a little uneasy. If your goal is entirely to eliminate headcount, then stop here. This is not the blog post for you (and you need to consider more than just automation).

Assuming, however, that like many executives, your drivers for automation are for helping staff work faster and smarter, then it’s your responsibility to ensure your people share this vision. Automation is just a tool, a hammer if you will. On its own, it doesn’t really mean anything. The value it brings is in the outcomes that are ultimately created. If you are not able to enunciate those outcomes, your staff will make some up - often fueled by fear (as is our nature).

CFO: So what will people do when their work is automated?

Vendor: That’s the great part, they will have all this spare time to do more meaningful and exciting work!

The conversation above, which I promise you has been had thousands of times across companies around the world has one key problem. Nobody is talking about what this more meaningful and exciting work actually is. What will your staff do with their new found time? Be specific. Have a plan. Make sure they understanding it and are on-board. Do you want them to spend that 1/2 a day of time saved each week on meeting and partnering with the business? Fantastic! But you have to tell them and you need to convince them that it will be a better outcome for them.

Tips for helping staff overcome fear:

  • Communicate your post-automation vision. Be specific. Tell staff exactly how you expect work-life to be for them as a result of automation.
  • Educate your staff on the merits of automation. Make it clear to them that automation tools augment their work, not replace it.

Manage friction with your IT Department.

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An over-reliance on an overloaded IT Department will hamper any innovative ideas your Finance team has - not just automation or analytics. Signs that your IT department is overloaded:

  • They (IT) say “yes” to everything but actually deliver very little on time and on budget.
  • They (IT) do very little to educate business leaders on technology initiatives, preferring to work in their silo.
  • Their “roadmap” is a list of technologies, void of any connection to business strategies. For example, be wary of roadmap items that are simply titled “Migrate to AWS” or “Move to SAP HANA”.

This is made more complicated because investments in technology for automation are often jointly owned between the business and IT, even if the technology does not require any input from IT. In order to get any automation off the ground, you are going to need at least some buy-in from IT. Even in companies where IT is doing a fantastic job, they are going to need at least some convincing as to why this is an imperative that should be driven by the business and through external technology vendors.

The best IT departments welcome and encourage the use of automation technology that is wholly driven by the business. The analogy we often use here is to imagine a line of business users waiting for solutions from the IT department. Automation is aimed at helping the people at the very back of that line - the ones who will not receive any attention for 12 months or more. This approach usually helps IT understand where automation fits and also reduces any defensiveness that may naturally be present.

Tips for managing IT friction:

  • Be attentive to the signs that your IT department is overloaded.
  • Be ready to convince IT to let you (Finance) drive automation and use external technologies.
  • Use the “line-outside-the-IT-office” analogy (see above).
  • If IT insist on being considered as a competitor to deliver an automated solution, compare delivery times between IT and your choice of external vendor for a specific automation project.
  • Demand a level playing field by insisting that IT produce a PoC with the same functionality that the external vendor will deliver, in the same time frame and for the same cost. If IT fails to jump over this first hurdle, they are unlikely to meet the full requirements of the project.

Don’t agonise over ROI. Consider the innovation factor.

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Automation, at least today, can be thought of as an innovative undertaking for Finance. It introduces a new way of working and challenges the way we think about what it means to be in Finance. On that note, it doesn’t make sense to measure innovation with the same yardstick that you use for other business decisions.

In many companies, the only ideas that get funded are those that either address an immediate customer need, keep up with competitors or increase profits. If those are the only qualifying factors you use to make your decisions, you are not innovating. You are running a business - and maybe even doing a great job at it. However, that is not innovation.

Innovative ideas are inherently uncertain. There is often a vague problem statement and a vision for a solution, but that is about it. If you believe that automation is only about saving time, you’re missing a critical aspect of what automation brings to your company. Automation has the power to transform and elevate Finance into a new and more valuable role. It creates an opportunity for staff to provide a higher value of service to the business - beyond just crunching numbers. It may lead to new types of reporting and analytics, that in turn help the business develop new products, improve service to customers or generate more revenue. How do you measure these benefits? It’s hard, I get it. But to ignore them simply because they don’t fit into your current framework for measurement defies the essence of what innovation is all about.

Tips for looking beyond ROI:

  • Measure the obvious stuff like time savings - clearly, this needs to be done at a minimum - and remember that staff tend to underestimate the time they spend on their processes by quoting optimal completion times rather than averages.
  • Consider the intangibles - rework needed to correct errors in the data, downstream issues due to an ill-considered manual process, reputation risk, knowledge dissipation when staff leave.
  • Don’t ignore the value of a re-engineered, streamlined process - a future where changes to the data are easily accommodated, or where the process itself can be altered without an entire rebuild.
  • Consider the benefits that automation will bring to your team - increased job satisfaction, the opportunity to work on analysis and crafting the message contained in each report, a culture shift away from “cranking the handle”.

Final thoughts

Like a lot of things, starting your automation journey is the hardest part. Until you do, your Finance department will have no reason to break the mould and unshackle itself from the habits that have shaped the past. But to craft and take advantage of a new and digital future, CFOs and Finance leaders need to be willing to take the first step. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be hard. But you’re not alone. An expert vendor can relieve you of the burden and minimise the risk.

Technology vendors and consultants, like SolveXia and our partners, are here to help make the journey as easy as possible. We have the expertise and we have the technology to help you automate. But none of that matters unless Finance leaders can take that first, all-important step to simply start automating.

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