Perception versus reality: Automation uptake in the finance industry

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The events of the last year or so have forced organisations to adapt quickly to remain competitive and maintain business stability. Despite signs of economic recovery, 2022 is set to see modest economic growth following a major downturn in 2020, representing continued challenges for finance professionals in their daily tasks. With the difficult economic climate proving a stumbling block for businesses, a Dun & Bradstreet survey of more than 1,200 CFOs and other finance professionals from a range of countries and industries uncovered how businesses are tackling challenges today. A telling statistic from the findings was that almost all respondents had acknowledged difficulty in managing customer data due to current market instability (98%). Perhaps as a result, 42% plan to purchase new or enhance their existing technology to help drive business efficiencies, but only 28% reported having fully automated their credit-to-cash process.

Implementing automation in the organisation

While the benefits of automation are clear in helping to ease the challenges for financial professionals’ working day through the removal of time-consuming manual processes, only 36% of businesses in the study had automated certain tasks. Visma | Onguard’s 4th Fintech Barometer also found that adoption of automation was far from universal in UK businesses, with 53% adopting Intelligent Automation and a further 37% planning integration of the technology within the next 1-2 years. It’s clear that despite the benefits automation can offer, and the hype around these in the media, many businesses in the financial sector have not yet committed to the technology.

Understandably, this could perhaps be due to hesitation to invest during a time where purse strings are tight, but the irony is that companies are missing out on comprehensive cost and time savings they could gain by utilising these solutions. Respondents in the survey identified the integration of disparate data sources (53%) and human error (40%) as the primary challenges facing their customer data management. Technology such as Intelligent Automation can look for connections between datasets to provide insights, while it can also act as the safety net to flag human error in the finance department.

The role of the CFO in digital transformation

Individuals within a business may have identified the need for greater automation, but are struggling to win support for its integration into financial departments. The evolving role of the CFO has an important part to play in driving this innovation and building a successful business case for new technology. Previous findings by Visma | Onguard uncovered that over a quarter of CFOs believe that their job will no longer exist in ten years due to digital transformation, but the more likely outcome is the ability for CFOs to spend less time on manual activities and focus on the bigger picture issues. This is evidenced further in Dun & Bradstreet’s survey, which found that nearly 80% of CFOs are directly or indirectly responsible for risk management in their organisation, including both internal and external.

The CFO is now a key participant in assessing longer term impacts on business operations and should play a consultative role in discussions around technology implementation as such. This goes beyond just the CFO themselves, with 76% of CFOs identifying the role of the finance team in their organisation as expanding from core accountancy-based functions to additionally include advanced digital and data analysis tasks. This growing trend is perhaps no surprise due to the close relationship between technology and data. To truly benefit from automotive processes, technology needs to be utilised as the enabler of insightful data. The onus now sits with CFOs to begin with smaller data-driven projects, powered by technology, to help drive the business forward and adopt more efficient processes.

Achieving long-term success in future

While the global economic picture may appear bleak on the surface, businesses remain competitive by being increasingly supported by new regulations, such as a law recently introduced in the Netherlands requiring SMEs to be paid by larger companies within 30 days. These legislative changes, combined with the ability for automated processes to assist finance professionals in prioritising and sorting incoming payments, will help finance departments to achieve long-term efficiencies by easing challenges for finance professionals.

What is clear is that reality has a while to go to catch up with perceptions of technological innovation in the finance industry. Whilst automation offers great potential, many organisations have yet to truly benefit, and building a successful business case from the outset to garner wider business support will be key to securing new innovations. Now is the time for CFOs and finance departments to lead from the front and demonstrate the value that can be gained from harnessing data and technology as economic challenges continue.

Hear more from Adriaan Kom of Visma | Onguard, Mark Preston from Dun & Bradstreet, Sue Chapple from CICM and Ian Defty at Begbies Traynor Group as they discuss the results from Dun & Bradstreet’s survey of finance professionals and the best practices for overcoming market disruption and instability.

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