The ongoing Covid-19 situation has led to many businesses in the UK and across the world, taking a step back to rethink their processes, infrastructure and strategy. It has had an unprecedented impact on every sector, but it has also given businesses food for thought.

The question the pandemic has posed to business decision makers is, ‘can you adapt strategy quickly enough for the business to operate when faced with a significant challenge?’ In short, are you agile?

One area of business that has played a key role since the outbreak of Covid-19 is the finance team. They have had to shock proof their businesses and inform business leaders almost on a day-by-day basis what the figures show, as revenue takes a significant hit.

Yet if they have been restrained by outdated software or left with no access to the right tools, it will have made their role even more challenging. So, should decision makers rethink the financial tools their finance team has at their disposal?

 

Shifting focus

During the past decade the number of tools advanced technology has brought to finance teams’ armory has increased significantly, with many of these proving to have real benefits in the current situation.

Some businesses were already adopting digital tax software (accelerated by the introduction of MTD), cloud solutions, mobile accounting and artificial intelligence (AI) – which in the coming years could have the biggest impact.

AI could in fact see a shift in how finance teams work. The big four accounting firms were early adopters and some of them have already developed their own AI solutions. Other businesses are following suit thanks to finance management software providers developing AI tools or updates to their offerings that allow finance teams to automate once time consuming tasks.

AI isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s still important to highlight just how big a difference it can make to the productivity, quality and accuracy of accountant’s work – not to mention that it will enable finance teams to move away from the mundane ‘enter and repeat’ style tasks towards a more advice-led, analytical consultancy based approach – which will have been their top priority in recent weeks, with AI, this can be their only priority.

 

Illuminating the signs

One of the key benefits of AI in practice is that it can make long-winded, extremely detailed tasks much quicker and makes the data much more accurate. An example is auditing, whether that’s an external or internal audit.

In theory, AI should provide finance leaders with the tools to help ensure the longevity of a business or at least put the signs of risk in big illuminous letters. Through algorithms, AI can process vast amounts of data and pull out misstatements or risk transactions that directors and key stakeholders need to know about in order to take action.

Usually a team of auditors will pull out samples to spot unusual or potentially harmful transactions to a business backed up by other procedures to improve the accuracy of the audit. But it still brings with it a level of risk that the data sets miss the danger signs. AI can remove the risk (of missing the risks) and human error, enabling internal and external auditors to use their time analysing what AI has found in order to inform the entire business. Ultimately, protecting it and helping it to grow.

 

Lifting the weight

It’s not just accuracy that AI has a positive impact on. Productivity can be vastly improved as AI helps to reduce the sheer amount of processes and paperwork they have to work through. AI can handle invoices, analyse expense reports and process POs, all through tools like machine learning, natural language processing and cognitive computing. These can all be integrated as part of a finance team’s ERP software.

It frees up the team to spend much more of their time analysing data and advising the business, making it more likely that they spot potential risk or unusual activity. According to a global report from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, 13 per cent of organisations currently use AI or machine learning to help fight fraud.

It gives finance leaders the power to not only spot this kind of activity in the data but also identify where it may occur in future. And with cyber-crime continuing to increase in frequency and complexity, it’s important that finance teams play their part in helping to minimise its impact through the use of advanced technologies.

 

Focus on strategy

With the extra headspace tools like AI bring to a finance team, it means finance professionals can make sure their department is advice and consultancy led. In a situation like the one we are facing now, where directors and business owners want to know what their financial data tells them at every step to help guide current and future strategy, the right tools can make all the difference.