Driving the RPA revolution
Robotic process automation is transforming businesses in all industries. Find out how accounting firms are using bots to drive change.
Robotic process automation is one of the fastest-growing areas of digital transformation. Accounting firms are playing a pivotal role in its growth by helping organisations understand and benefit from this game-changing technology. For organisations seeking to increase productivity, cut costs and reduce human error, the call of the ‘bot’ is irresistible, especially when this frees up employees to add value in other areas. At the top of the list of desirable bot software is robotic process automation (RPA) – one of the fastest-growing and exciting areas of automation – where bots mimic humans to make information processing faster and less prone to human error. A growing number of accounting firms are joining the bot revolution. Not only are the most tech-savvy accounting firms benefiting from RPA to improve processes internally, but they are increasingly helping clients understand and evaluate the costs and benefits of adopting RPA.
The power of bots
Among the firms heading the RPA charge is Kaufman Rossin, a Praxity participant firm based in Miami. Roberto Valdez, Director of Cybersecurity and Automation at Kaufman Rossin, describes RPA as a “critical” component of digital change. He says: “RPA represents one of the most powerful examples of what digital transformation can mean for an organisation.” RPA bots are capable of performing routine, data-based tasks significantly faster than humans. Moreover, the bots are capable of carrying out these activities 24/7, 365 days a year, reducing or eliminating human error and resulting in more efficiency, more accuracy and higher productivity. RPA can be used for simple tasks, such as automating keystrokes and mouse clicks, as well as sophisticated logic-based routines spanning large segments of an accounting cycle. Traditionally, bots were created for routine, rule-based processes, such as gathering records from database searches for accounts or transactions in various systems. Some organisations are now scheduling large fleets of bots to optimise the order in which routines are performed. Effectively, the bots work alongside their human colleagues, assisting with day-to-day operations or relieving the overflow of an existing workforce operating at maximum capacity. This allows employees to focus on the more challenging and rewarding analytical parts of the job. In a recent survey by Forbes, 92% of employees were found to have increased workplace satisfaction after the implementation of intelligent automation and RPA, Roberto Valdez points out.
Roberto and his colleagues at Kaufman Rossin have first-hand experience of how RPA can transform the workplace. The Florida firm has had marked success deploying bots internally and for local and international clients. Internally, one of the areas where the firm has benefitted most is the use of bots for the automated processing of tax returns. Roberto explains: “When we launched the RPA programme, we were processing dozens of returns using the technology. After six months we were processing 100s of returns and this season we are processing 1000s.” Kaufman Rossin is now looking to broaden its use of RPA to process a larger variety of documents and for other functions like billing. The firm has also benefitted from a more even workflow. During peak tax season, RPA is helping reduce overtime hours for administrative staff and free up attention to address client requests. “We have been able to cut back on costly overtime. The same people that previously did these routine functions now oversee the bots. It’s like they have a bot assistant to help them with their job,” Roberto adds. In addition, Kaufman Rossin has created a screening bot that consumes large lists of parties and counterparties to transactions and performs searches on those parties for money laundering and sanctions risk indicators. “Overnight, the bot reads the listings of hundreds of entity names, performs searches against those names for indicators of risk, and prints hyperlinked PDFs that are available for review by our AML & Sanctions compliance consulting team the next day.”
Externally, the accounting firm has helped its clients drive operating process efficiencies, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, and compliance activities. In one example for a professional services firm, Kaufman Rossin designed, implemented and currently maintains a bot that checks a log of jobs performed against cash deposits, identifies cash receipts for jobs performed, records the date, and signs off as ‘bot’ in a subledger for review. If less cash is received than expected, the bot records and highlights it for further inspection. Similarly, for a jewellery retailer, the accounting firm created a bot that checks invoices received against purchase orders and packing slips to validate unit prices and quantities. Issues are flagged for review and load files are created for import into the company’s point of sale system. RPA is now a key part of Kaufman Rossin’s client advisory service offerings. The firm helps clients understand the implications and costs of RPA, and builds a proof of concept to guide clients through the transformation. One growing market for RPA is financial services and particularly banking, especially for due diligence screening. Well-deployed RPA can perform open source searches and screen multiple lists and sites to detect potential adverse news and/or identify AML and sanctions risk factors for a potential customer. However, this is just the start of the RPA revolution. A new report by Gartner predicts growth of RPA in 2020 will go far beyond simple task-based RPA to include complex business processes as part of a wider trend towards ‘hyperautomation’ where organisations automate as many processes as possible. This will require “multidisciplinary governance and coordination across business units, IT, security, sourcing and assurance functions”, Gartner says.
Making the RPA work for you
So, how do you maximise the benefits of RPA for your organisation? In a recent article entitled RPA: Leading the Digital Workforce, Roberto Valdez and Jason Chorlins, Risk Advisory Services Principal at Kaufman Rossin, outline five key steps to follow:
Identify your competencies
Are you going to build, buy, or borrow a team capable of implementing the talent? Managing a successful RPA program requires multiple types of knowledge and skill. In addition to the business managers and process owners, common roles for a successful program may include an automation program manager, business analysts, bot developers, automation architects, and infrastructure managers. Building would involve training multiple existing employees within your organization to assume the roles necessary to perform these functions. Buying suggests hiring the experienced personnel. Borrowing means using consultants. Many organizations use a blend of all three.
Examine your processes
The rule of thumb is that RPA will amplify and accelerate existing processes. An organization that already has good governance will amplify it through RPA. But robotic process automation may also highlight less-than-sound processes. Don’t just aim to automate the current process, take advantage of the opportunity to re-engineer and optimize the process. Some organizations have personnel whose role includes process optimization. Other organizations may choose to automate and optimize through an iterative process.
Develop an automation roadmap
To maximize the benefits of RPA while controlling the risk related to change, it’s often a good idea to start as small as possible with your pilots. People may want to start off with a big win and demonstrate high return on investment as quickly as possible; however, limiting the number of variables changed in a process helps to manage the risk of unintended consequences. You are less likely to break interfaces and create incompatibilities by decomposing from programs into projects, projects into routines, routines into tasks, and tasks into steps.
Test your automation
Follow sound change management practices not only for the technology but also for the business process being automated. Criticality of processes and sensitivity of data should be identified before beginning so that proper business continuity and information security planning can be incorporated into development, testing, and deployment. Proper authorization of changes should be obtained. Development and testing should be performed in segregated environments with test data in robust test cases. Staging environments should be provided for user acceptance testing. Approval of changes should be obtained prior to deployment. Post-implementation testing and monitoring of automated process is key.
Comparing the time required for RPA to complete a task versus the time required for manual completion of the same task will help you start to quantify efficiency gains. Successful use of RPA often requires a significant investment in software licensing, staff training, new employees and/or consultants. There will be a learning curve, most likely errors to fix and tweaks to make. Be wary of vendors who promise an unrealistic return on investment (ROI) in six months or a year.