Disruption, innovation, transformation, change – the watchwords of modern business. But how do these apply to Finance and Procurement? What are the trends that are likely to shape your role? And how do you prepare to adapt to the opportunities that these bring?
Barely a day goes by when the headlines aren’t doom-mongering about “the machines taking over” and displacing human labour. But modern-day fears associated with the rise of disruptive innovations such as artificial intelligence and automation barely differ from the objections of workers at the turn of the 19th century whose jobs were threatened by the machines of the industrial revolution. Change can be scary, or it can be exciting, but the one thing it is for sure is inevitable.
Sir Jack Welch, whose tenure as CEO of General Electric spanned 20 years, famously observed: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” So as the mega-trends of RPA, AI and Blockchain make it into everyday language, all of us need to pay attention to what’s going on beyond the four walls of our business rather than hoping they are merely passing technology fads.
“If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near” – Jack Welch, Former CEO, GE
Robotic Process Automation
RPA is the use of rules-driven software ‘robots’ to perform high-volume, manual, repetitive tasks by mimicking the actions of a human being interacting with the user interface of a computer application. For example, they can scrape structured data from a PDF document to speed up transaction-matching.
Robots are tireless, completing their activities faster than people with zero errors. However, their role is not to eliminate the need for human capital, but to free up humans to focus on higher-value, more purposeful activities. In fact, RPA is touted as “helping humans become more human at work”. RPA isn’t AI – robots have to be explicitly programmed with instructions and can’t “think” for themselves. And RPA is not the answer to all of your problems, either – you can’t fix a broken business process simply by giving it to a robot. That’s where business process automation (BPA) should be applied to overhaul and streamline processes for maximum efficiency and value.
AI is the new electricity. You’re already experiencing AI at work whenever you use social media, search engines, online shopping recommendations or virtual digital assistants like Siri and Alexa. There are four different levels of AI.
Level 1 – Reactive machines are rules-based and simply recognise patterns – they have no ability to form memories or to use past experience to inform current decisions. Examples of level 1 functionality in Basware AP Automation include automatic coding templates, recurring invoice recognition and best-fit matching.
Level 2 – Limited memory systems can look into the past. This is where machines start to get smarter, building on rules-based information by applying context, such as identifying specific objects and monitoring them over time. An example of this is the self-driving car, which observes other vehicles’ speed and direction, and decides when to decelerate or change lanes. But this information is only transient and isn’t saved into a library of “experience” the way a human driver learns. Smart coding of invoices is an example of level 2 functionality in Basware AP Automation.
Level 3 – Machine learning enables computers to teach themselves without being explicitly programmed, using algorithms that grow and adapt when exposed to new data. While learning, they collect further data to expand their insights and use these to formulate predictions. Basware Predictive Analytics is an example of level 3 capability.
Level 4 – Systems that learn can execute processes much more dynamically, creating their own algorithms and taking decisions based on these self-developed algorithms in a similar manner to humans. They apply what they’ve learned from existing data to forecast future behaviours, outcomes and trends and make better decisions. At Basware, we’re currently working on Insights-Based Guidance, which falls into this category.
Blockchain is a digital medium of exchange that involves sharing a distributed ledger database – a common version of the truth – which is updated simultaneously to all members of the Blockchain, accelerating the consent and validation of work orders and invoices. It was designed in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8 to deliver transparency, security and efficiency in transactions, particularly international payments.
Today’s P2P processes require a ton of back-and-forth interactions and opportunities for the process to break down. With Blockchain, the steps of validation and authentication, purchase order management, invoice processing and settlement are vastly simplified, enabling instantaneous transactions, diminishing the need for enquiries and process status follow-ups, and providing a tamper-proof audit trail.
Capturing data (lots of it!)
Whatever digital technologies you propose to adopt, the bottom line is that you have to capture data – and lots of it – in a centrally architected manner. Not just your own transactional data, but complemented by that from other organisations along with publicly available data. Machines cannot learn or predict without data to draw on, and worse than no prediction at all is taking the wrong direction based on incomplete data.
The key to realised value throughout the chain is not simply to have an integrated source-to-pay system, but to get everyone using it and everything going through it. That means:
- Adopting 100 per cent of your suppliers – from big corporations to Mom ‘n’ Pop businesses
- Capturing 100 per cent of your spend – you can’t just repeat the mantra “no PO, no pay” so the solution must be the path of least resistance for all users
- Automating 100 per cent of your invoices – not just invoices that match against indirect POs, and everything must run through one unified system
Only once you have achieved this holy trinity, can you make 100 per cent of activity visible through analytics. An example of this working in practice is a Basware customer that manufactures heavy machinery. Having grown through organic and inorganic means, they had accumulated a patchwork of ERP and AP systems and were suffering from all the classic AP failures and frustrations. Now, with Basware, they have every single invoice from 50 different countries flowing through the system, and 100 per cent spend visibility, which has not only allowed them to meet their cost savings business case but, more importantly, gain competitive advantage.
To learn more about how Basware can help you gear up for the future of finance, get in touch.