Following a number of years during which robotic process automation (RPA) was something only a relatively small number of companies had yet dabbled in, notable progress is now evident, a new report suggests.
In a survey of 500 senior finance executives in North America and Europe by technology and outsourcing consulting firm Capgemini, 41% said their organization has an enterprise-wide automation strategy in place.
Finance is leading the way — something that the report acknowledges may be counterintuitive for IT professionals.
“After all, back-office functions are not often the first to benefit from investment in advanced digital technologies,” the report states. “But the era of intelligent automation provides a way to change that.”
Indeed, only one executive in the survey sample said IT is leading the automation of finance processes.
Half or nearly half of survey participants said their teams have gone a long way toward automating a variety of finance processes. Those include not just the first wave of processes aided by RPA — such as accounts payable, order-to-cash, and record-to-report — but also treasury functions and even financial controls.
Between 65% and 70% of the finance executives said they see the potential for these and other processes to be fully or nearly fully automated within the next 10 years.
But there’s great promise for much broader application of RPA.
“Many businesses are now thinking in visionary terms: that finance automation is an opportunity to reimagine the work of the function, rather than simply perform the same tasks more quickly,” the report quotes Violet Desilets, vice president of financial services and systems for Staples, as saying.
Indeed, 43% of survey participants said they believe automation, if used effectively, has the potential to finish the transformation of finance from scorekeeper to strategic business partner.
“Finance veterans have heard this sort of claim before in relation to other enterprise technologies,” states the report. “And the automation efforts of finance teams are currently focused on improvements to the bottom line. But in three years, different kinds of returns are expected — for example, in terms of improved customer experience and the delivery of new business insights.”
A select group of surveyed companies — 26% of the sample — were identified as “Masters” that are ahead of the rest in automating finance. Such companies have an agreed transformation strategy in place to guide such automation and have fully or partially automated the 18 processes covered in the survey.
There are more Masters (58% of the total) in North America than in Europe (the survey sample was evenly distributed between the two regions). They are most prevalent among consumer product companies and least prevalent in financial services.
On the other end of the spectrum are Novices, the 18% of surveyed companies that have no plans for a finance automation strategy, or have plans but not yet any strategy.
The difference in the fortunes of the respective groups is stark. Among Masters, 26% have experienced revenue growth of at least 10% over the past three years, according to the survey, which was conducted in January and February of this year.
Among novices, only 6% registered that degree of success.
Masters are a more confident group as well. While 58% of Masters said they expect to be generating significant benefits from automation in three years, just 32% of novices said the same.
Meanwhile, RPA has an uncommon feature among enterprise technologies: it’s inexpensive.
“RPA tools do not need to involve large investments,” the report says. “Organizations can keep their experimentation within tight parameters while knowledge is accumulated, and after building and learning from prototypes, they can implement small pilots before extending the tools to other processes or geographies.”