The mission of the Financial Planning and Analysis function (FP&A) is providing insight into a company’s future financial performance. One of the keys to success for FP&A is building strong, collaborative partnerships with the businesses they support, which is facilitated by spending the majority of their time learning from and working with the business.
As any FP&A person will tell you, that’s much easier said than done. Far too often, FP&A teams find themselves bogged down in manual, repetitive tasks such as data entry, moving files and folders, copying and pasting between and within applications, logging into and retrieving data from multiple systems, etc.
That time would be far more productively spent working with the business. What’s a bogged down FP&A wonk to do? FP&A, say hello to RPA.
RPA stands for Robotic Process Automation. RPA is about software that sits between other applications or websites that is designed to automate a wide range of processes that tend to be repetitive, labor-intensive and rule-based. The software can replicate any mouse or keyboard input that a person would provide across multiple applications on their PC, such as logging into and out of systems, opening attachments, choosing from drop-down menus, consolidating data into reports or standardized formats, prepopulating journal entries and report distribution.
At this point, you may be thinking something along the lines of “That all looks great, but it must be a major IT project.” Fear not, when done right, this is an easily manageable business project rather than an IT project.
While RPA is software code, the development cycle is short, the initial investment is relatively low, and no special hardware is required. RPA can be implemented without changing the existing IT landscape. RPA can and should be configured primarily by non-technical staff. Finance team members who are comfortable creating spreadsheet macros are expected to play a key role in a successful implementation.
So besides freeing up the FP&A team from “data processing” activities, what are some of the other benefits of RPA?:
Highly scalable – Additional resources are not required to handle increasing volumes, which improves efficiency and generates potential costs savings from not needing to add resources to support growth. The automation of labor-intensive tasks costs less than adding headcount.
Increased accuracy and consistency – RPA results in very low error rates. Errors related to data re-entry and re-keying are eliminated.
Perfect audit trail – The exact steps and sequence executed by the software are available for full review at any time, enabling easy identification of problem areas.
24/7 availability – Software can grind through time-sensitive reporting tasks that often require finance staff to log night and weekend hours to meet deadlines.
Speed of impact – The combination of a relatively low initial investment and a short development cycle translates into an ROI that becomes visible in weeks and months, not years.
Happy business partners – FP&A members can spend more time delivering added value analyses and insights to their business partners.
Happy FP&A team – The reduction in the “data processing” burden allows the FP&A team to increase their productivity while focusing on partnering with the business to improve financial performance.
The potential benefits from implementing RPA are not limited to the FP&A function. There are many rule-based, repetitive processes across the entire Finance organization that are prime candidates for the RPA application model. RPA can drive improved efficiency, accuracy, and a reduction in labor hours related to processes including bank reconciliations, order to cash, record to report, and accounts payable.
RPA offers a unique value proposition for the Finance organization. RPA isn’t primarily about technology. It’s about letting the software do what it does best to free up the Finance team from repetitive, rule-based tasks to focus on activities that lead to improved business performance.
It’s still early days when it comes to RPA implementations, but for many Finance teams, it’s not too soon to start seriously exploring the potential applications and benefits that RPA can bring in the future.