With all the scare stories about “robots taking our jobs”, it’s easy to get the impression that we’d rather have robots doing jobs because they’re better than us.
Recently, I had to do a 2-minute explanation of why Finance should pursue automation opportunities. And I was given a PowerPoint slide with 10 or so bullet points full of buzzwords, telling how automation can reduce cost, improve customer satisfaction, improve consistency and traceability, support strategic platform upgrades and accelerate innovation, amongst other things.
Even my own eyes glazed over as I started to talk it through, so I cut to the real point.
Forget the buzzwords!
Forget the buzzwords. Humans are better than robots!
Robots don’t have intelligence.
Robots don’t interpret anything.
Robots don’t take action on information.
Robots don’t make strategies.
Robots don’t care if they win or lose.
Do repeatable, programmable, computer-based tasks…
And very fast (like a glorified macro!)
(And keep a record of everything they’ve done, etc, etc)
That allows humans to get on with being intelligent, interpreting information, making strategies, taking action… and winning!
It’s not about value adding
And, as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not about trying to automate “non-value-adding” tasks.
Even processing a supplier invoice is value-adding, because it helps keep the business going. And yet we’d still automate it.
In fact, to put it bluntly, if an activity isn’t value-adding then why is it being done at all?
And even if you take the most complex, brain taxing, modelling, if a computer could do it for us, we’d love it. Like in the sci-fi movies, like Star Trek, like Knight Rider (!).
When all is said and done, “value” is in making the lives of humans better. And if we can do that quicker and cheaper, we can help more people, and help people more.
So, let’s not get sidetracked with trying to ascertain which activities are value-adding and which aren’t. Automate anything you can automate!
Automation is nothing new
The reality is that, in spite of the hype around Robotic Process Automation and Artificial Intelligence, automation is not new.
When I started my career, we were just starting to get personal computers on every desk in the office. When I trained in public practice, we had one shared computer in each room, which was for the final bit of accounts preparation. Everything else was done on paper. And the accounting records we examined and used were on paper.
Within a couple of years, every desk had a computer, we had spreadsheets, and some people even had laptops. Soon everyone was on the internet and email became a thing.
I don’t remember being afraid of that. It helped me to do things quicker and more accurately. And it enabled me to do stuff I couldn’t do before – financial models, more complex analysis, forecasting.
Linking spreadsheets, macros and Visual Basic made things even quicker. We took every opportunity to cut out keystrokes.
What is RPA and AI but a continuation of the drive to a) let machines do whatever we can get them to do, and b) give ourselves the ability to do bigger and cleverer things?
The difference with digital
That said, there is something new about digital technology. And that is the scale of the opportunity. And I put that in two categories – the volume of solutions, and the rate of change.
And those things require a completely different mindset and approach.
Gone are the days when we start by identifying a problem, then find a type of solution, assess the different flavours (SAP, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, etc), decide and then implement.
It seems to me that the current climate requires more innovation.
In a sense, innovation can be described as solutions looking for a problem, rather than the other way around (which is our more natural inclination).
What I mean is that innovation and “digital disruption” happens when someone sees something new and wonders how it could help them. For instance, I guess Amazon saw the internet and thought, “how can we use that to sell stuff to people?” Then they saw smartphones, iOS and Android, and thought, “how can we use that to sell more stuff to people?” They started with a solution and found new ways to apply it.
What does that mean for Finance?
My suggestion is that it means we need to make sure we have people in the Finance function whose job it is to stay abreast of whatever new technology is out there. And they should be given the time and budget to experiment and find ways to improve what we do by using it. And they should go around chatting about ideas with everyone in the team.
One example I saw recently was where a Finance Systems team had been playing around with some new functionality, and got talking about it to someone in Finance who was struggling with some clunky overhead reporting. What resulted within a few months was an interactive pdf containing all the different cuts of overhead reporting that the exec needed – three pages rather than 30. It saved a lot of time and spreadsheet manipulation, and enabled some really focused insight.
This is the kind of thing we have to do. In this day and age, with global competition and the pace of change, our businesses depend on us to keep getting better through innovation.