What Digitizing Financial Functions Can Tell Us about Productivity in the Office of the Future

June 21, 2018

By Dennis Amorosano, Senior Vice President & General Manager, Canon Information & Imaging Solutions

The accounts payable function at most organizations is a time-intensive process that often leaves little room for advanced creative, strategic or analytic work for its specialists. In fact, the Institute of Finance and Management (IOFM) reported that 84% of the average accounts payable (AP) professional’s time is spent on transaction processing alone. PwC concurs, reporting that inadequate AP processes and systems result in 27% of time spent on waste and activities that could be automated. These inefficiencies were previously considered par for the course, but new technologies are making many companies and financial professionals rethink this dogma.

Disruptive new ways of working are reshaping the workplace into the Office of the Future, and many of the changes happening within finance, specifically AP and Procure-to-Pay (P2P), foreshadow larger trends in productivity at work. According to a “Setting Your P2P Strategy for 2018 and Beyond” report authored by shared services link and Canon Information & Imaging Solutions (CIIS), a subsidiary of Canon U.S.A., which surveyed senior financial professionals, efficiency (72% of survey respondents), automation (63% of survey respondents) and improving quality of services (58% of survey respondents) are top goals for the next two years. As businesses ready themselves for a more agile and automated future, data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics can help pave the way for greater productivity.

The Future Will Be Data-Driven

The same shared services link and CIIS study found that 77% of senior financial professionals surveyed anticipate that there will be a greater use of AP data across the enterprise. AP and P2P processes and systems usually handle so much information about employees, vendors, financial institutions and other entities, that adding context to this data – which can be analyzed for trends and insights – is apt to become a priority for financial services professionals and organizations looking to be more efficient and effective. Smart, forward-looking businesses will accumulate and mine large quantities of data to help companies assess spend management and analyze cash flow, identify bottlenecks and extrapolate other useful information that they can use to help improve overall productivity.

Some of the key concerns of businesses as data comes to play a major role in the Office of the Future, especially regarding finance, are the heightened risk of fraud and other data security violations. Many process automation solutions provide inherent data security benefits as compared to today’s highly manual processes.

Efficiency and AI Designed To Go Hand in Hand

Larger quantities of data can mean a greater amount of transparency, allowing AI-enabled systems to learn patterns of payments and identify abnormal invoicing and other outliers that could signal fraudulent activity. These can include a high volume of low-dollar value invoices, invoices in the same amount paid to the same entity in a short period of time, invoices with amounts that fall just below pre-set approval limits and manually adjusted invoice amounts – irregularities that AI may detect and flag for further investigation.

Beyond risk management, AI can also be a huge resource for organizing and optimizing AP and P2P, where human error in bookkeeping can sometimes have dire results. The predictive analytics of machine learning mean that the longer the technology manages a task, the better and more efficient it can become. The technology may be able to train itself to recognize and approve documents, resolve exceptions, extract necessary information for processing and recognize unknown or new objects and figure out which similar cases to reference in order to find a solution.

Robotics Can Be Implemented Across Various Functions in the Office of the Future

While most enterprise professionals have envisioned robotics as impacting very specialized sectors or industries in the Office of the Future, such as manufacturing and supply chain management, the same shared services link and CIIS study found that 54% of surveyed financial professionals saw robotics as the technology most important to the future of AP and P2P. Robotics refers to more than humanoid machines; here, it means the use of AI and software to help handle the high-volume, repetitive tasks that were previously managed exclusively by humans.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is predicted to play a vital role in automating menial, time-consuming tasks, such as capturing and validating data or managing audit compliance, which can be accelerated to help improve cycle times, manage spikes in volume and ensure consistent operating procedures. Canon U.S.A. sponsored an IDC study titled, “The Canon Office of the Future Survey,” which found that 54% of surveyed senior IT decision-makers believe robotics will eliminate many manual tasks, which can help give workers room for creativity and innovation. Fortunately, RPA often requires insignificant IT involvement and generally does not replace an organization’s existing systems, helping to make it easy and frictionless to integrate RPA into a company’s existing systems, while providing a measurable and almost immediate advantage.

With a strong track record of delivering process automation solutions for its customers and a rapidly emerging expertise in AI and machine learning, CIIS is fast becoming a recognized provider of finance and accounting business process automation solutions. With a specific focus on Procure to Pay and Order to Cash automation, CIIS can help organizations automate the traditional manual content capture and data entry integrating such information into some of today’s most popular ERP systems. This can result in more efficient operations, better cash management, help to minimize risk, and best of all, increase time for employees to focus on adding value!

As businesses prepare for the Office of the Future, more organizations are embracing data analytics, AI and robotics rather than fearing them. Looking at AP professionals as an indicator of larger trends in the Office of the Future, most employees can be given the ability to assume more challenging and value-added work due, in part, to automation of simple tasks through the support of technological advancement.

To find out more about the research report by sharedserivceslink and CIIS - "Setting Your P2P Strategy for 2018 and Beyond", view the infographic report. If you would like to learn more about how Artificial Intelligence and Robotics will transform Accounts Payable, read the CIIS whitepaper on this topic.

This article was first published by the PaymentsJournal on June 15, 2018.