A Finance Chief’s Practical View of Robotics and AI

Intelligent automation boosts both day-to-day finance functions and the quality of finance's strategic insight, says Willis Towers Watson's Michael...
Willis Towers Watson, CFO, and Michael BurwellJanuary 3, 2019

Discussion around the impact of intelligent automation often centers on what it means for consumers, or its implications for the workplace and the changing nature of jobs. But what does it mean in practice for finance professionals?

As the CFO of an S&P 500 company with more than three decades of finance and business experience, I find that the aspect of robotics and artificial intelligence that has most surprised me is the extent to which we have come to implement these technologies in corporate finance.

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Digital transformation to this degree is something that has been talked about for years. Now, however, seeing the impact on the individual, day-to-day functions of my team makes transformation seem much more real.

It is in everyday tasks that we can see how AI impacts the average finance worker and finance role. And in examining that, we further can see how we will continue to adapt these roles for the future and create a new way of working.

During my career at PwC leading digital transformation, I saw a great deal of AI-driven initiatives, and over the course of my first year as CFO of Willis Towers Watson, I have been privileged to closely examine the practical implementation of AI and its impact on day-to-day operations.

Michael Burwell

For example, in the tax area of Willis Towers Watson, we use robotics to retrieve invoices in response to various queries by state and local tax authorities. It’s an important step, because both the number of reviews per day and the amount of data requested is growing exponentially.

My tax team can assign the robot a task and time to retrieve invoices in advance of a tax examination. A key advantage of using robots is their ability to work off-peak hours when staffers are home. When they arrive in the morning, they have invoices and a status report to review.

We also are using AI programs as the first line of response for many financial inquiries that come to our department. Robots are able to deal with certain basic questions without the need for human intervention. Those that cannot be dealt with this way are escalated to a human.

These processes are ultimately quite ordinary and could be conducted by human employees almost as simply. However, in implementing the robotic processes and thereby eliminating mundane tasks and reducing the risk of human error, we are able to improve the quality of work for our employees. Tax professionals don’t get excited about pulling invoices to respond to audits. They want to serve as strategic consultants and advisers.

In fact, the greatest benefits of automated processes come from the finance function’s improved ability to be proactive and creative in providing the company with insights on, for example, that macro trends that we see driving our business.

The heightened ability to use data to create better-informed narratives based on the fluctuation analysis provided by AI has enabled us to reach a higher level of sophistication in our work.

Making Digital Transformation Happen

Like many companies, mine — which I joined in October 2017 — is undergoing a digital transformation. A key part of it is driving the establishment of an automation hub within corporate finance as a foundation for further integration of AI-enabled decision making across the company.

We’re incorporating intelligence into all aspects of our effort to digitize the finance function. This includes leveraging robotics across all key finance processes and incorporating voice recognition and natural language processing to help our people access information easier and faster.

AI is benefiting everyone, from individuals to the largest global organizations. The more data that’s available, the more AI technologies, particularly machine learning, can provide value. The world is very dynamic, considering economics, geopolitics, regulations, and more. It’s extremely difficult to track and understand the implications of all of these dynamics, but by using AI to help assess the related risks, we can make better decisions for our organizations.

Leaders of digital transformation need to ask how they can continue to look at planning models for their business through a more proactive lens, with AI playing an important role, and use the resulting heightened data analysis to bring insights to corporate and business leaders.

In addition, there must be room for experimentation. As awareness has grown within Willis Towers Watson of our automated finance processes, other leaders and departments have begun to explore and implement similar tools, driving AI implementation in the organization on a vertical basis.

All CFOs should remember that AI is still just a tool to help us make better and faster decisions. We can derive additional insight and use it to make routine tasks more efficient, but it is still humans making the final decisions. Companies will continue to require the experience and expertise of their employees to drive businesses forward and strengthen their companies from within.

Be aware of the current stigma around AI and robotics replacing human staff with software. AI in digital transformation is not about replacing employees with machines, it’s about changing the way people work.

By automating the granular tasks through AI and robotics, we create a more sophisticated workforce of financial professionals that are proactive, creative, and achieving higher levels of strategic analysis.

Michael Burwell is the CFO of Willis Towers Watson. He also served four years as finance chief at PricewaterhouseCoopers during his 31 years with the firm, which he capped with five years as vice chairman for global and U.S. transformation.