The bots are coming to your finance department

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Unit4 previews its new digital assistant, which uses natural language and no specific user interface – if you don’t like Siri, look away now!

One of the more thought-provoking aspects of Unit4’s connect conference was a live product demonstration of the company’s new ‘intelligent’ digital assistant.

The application forms part of Unit4’s new ‘self-driving software’ line-up and uses pattern recognition to understand and predict the user’s behaviour, then performs certain activities by itself.

These tasks include categorising invoices according to risk, pre-populating expense reports and timesheets and providing discount proposals based on customer risk profiles.

User interface

One of Unit4’s selling points for their digital assistant is the lack of a specific user interface (UI) with values and columns for the user to fill in.

Instead, the digital assistant sits between the user and the system, and responds to natural language commands to complete tasks such as submitting timesheets and expense reports, making routine purchases or categorising actions based on risk profiles.

This is done through bots – automated programs that are purpose-built to carry out specific tasks and learn while doing them. In this case Unit4 used them to complete routine finance department functions, but with Microsoft’s chief executive recently declaring that ‘bots are the new apps’, it is more than likely they will be used for a vast range of different functions.

Bots allow Unit4’s digital assistant users to choose from a range of different input options. Global head of presales Thomas Staven demonstrated the assistant using Skype for Business, but customers who use UIs like, Slack, Yammer, Facebook or Twitter can also deploy these methods.

“The best UI is your favourite UI”, said Staven, so instead of building a specific UI “why not leverage one that’s widely used already?”

Demonstrating the product to more than 1,000 Unit4 customers in attendance at the Amsterdam conference, Staven submitted a timesheet, scanned in a variety of expense claims via the product’s OCR technology and requested a new laptop. 

Timesheet

Travel expenses

Purchasing

The application is part of Unit4’s drive to boost end user productivity by automating routine tasks and delivering better user experience. The application claims to change the way people work with enterprise software as part of Unit4’s new ‘self-driving software’.

Through a partnership with Microsoft’s AzureML, the tech giant’s machine learning arm, Unit4 also hope to use predictive analytics to understand patterns from each individual user (and colleagues in the same role) to predict and automate repetitive, routine responsibilities, eventually taking these tasks completely off the hands of busy finance departments.

The digital assistant is slated to be available on Unit4’s People Platform Premium Edition users at some point in 2017.

Front office revolution

The digital assistant forms part of Unit4’s front office revolution. While updating their back office remains vital to what Unit4 does in its core professional services market, chief executive José Duarte insisted that changing the front office is where the highest impact is made in business.

“Airbnb didn’t change accounting processes for hospitality – they changed how business is done”, said Duarte. “Uber didn’t change how payroll for taxi drivers is done. They went straight to where the value is – the client interface.”

While there remains demand for Unit4 to modernise its offering for the service industry, allowing ‘knowledge-rich’ workforces more time to focus on ‘high-value’ activities, the Dutch software vendor may have a job persuading their more established, conservative customers that digital assistants are the future of their finance departments.

Do you think that bots are likely to change the way finance functions are performed? Is machine learning likely to be a help or a hindrance to boosting employee productivity?

About Tom Herbert

Tom is editor at AccountingWEB, responsible for all editorial content on the site. If you have a story that might interest us or wish to comment on the site's coverage get in touch via the site's private message function or Twitter DM (@AWebTom)

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