Finance directors should embrace the robotic revolution

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Fei-Fei Li is a passionate researcher and has spent the last 15 years trying to teach computers how to see at Stanford University. In a few more years robots’ visual processing power will dramatically improve enabling them to automate all manner of tasks in the office through sophisticated algorithms and machine learning. It’s a scary prospect to think your job might be replaced by robots, but in fact financial roles are one of the most likely jobs at risk of automation according to this recent Oxford University study.

According to the research some key financial management roles are in the top 15 job roles most likely to be fully automated within the next two decades, including:

  • Financial accounts manager (98% probability, 4th overall)
  • Finance officer (97% probability, 8th overall)
  • Financial administrative role (97%, 11th overall)

The leadership team, however, are at the other end of the spectrum, with financial managers and directors only facing a 7% chance of automation (300th overall).

Whether or not you agree with the detail of the research, no finance director in any mid to large sized business will be surprised as to why this may be the case. An excessive proportion of accounts teams’ time is absorbed in running procedural administration around operational systems. You need to process a payment? You need to scan an invoice. It comes from a branch location? The original needs posting for approval before it can be processed. You need to add a supplier to your system so they can start delivering a service to one of your directors? They have to fill out an Excel sheet, which someone then transcribes into a web interface into the ERP application that controls their payments. And you probably need to spend part of your day chasing a couple of layers of management to login to the relevant application and hit ‘approve’ on expenses, budgets, invoices and payment remittances.

One of our customers found they were spending £8,000 a quarter shipping invoices between branch locations, so not only is there a cost in the time of some of your most highly trained staff, but a real cost to the business as well.

Given that most CFAs in the UK spend between three and four years completing their training – often after achieving a bachelor’s degree – it’s clear that a lot of these problems need to be addressed. It’s simply not a good use of skilled resource, even if we had robots to support them today.

In my view, there are three key ways to tackle this problem:

  1. Review your financial processes. You’ll find processes ripe for automation, and you’ve probably just become inured to them being ‘business as usual’ – they don’t necessarily need to be. It may help to get a third party advisers or newer members of staff to examine them for you – those that are not entrenched in the old ways of doing things.
  2. Build in the operational intelligence that delivers the most impact. Investing in the changes you need to automate key processes as events trigger them will free up resources and – in some cases – actual cash, allowing you to scale better and reduce your operational overheads.
  3. Train your team to become trusted advisers to the business. Instead of being trapped in a world of paper pushing and administration, there’s an opportunity for finance teams to add real value, whether that’s in supporting with supplier negotiation or in building commercial models for new areas of business expansion.

I, for one, welcome the arrival of our new robotic overlords. They’re welcome to the paper pushing. It’ll mean that finance teams end up less stressed, more effective and ultimately feel more valued by the business.

Harry Mowat is the UK Managing Director of Greentree Software, a global ERP software provider founded in New Zealand. Greentree is focussed mid-market businesses, and is seeing particularly rapid growth in the UK.  


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