The news is awash with stories on the rise of automation and robotics, raising a new debate on the future of the workforce in our digital by default society.  The rise of robotic process automation will undoubtedly disrupt the idea of the traditional labour market – as we cannot expect a technological revolution without change.

Industry 4.0 is characterised by the rise of new technologies underpinned by data and vast computing powerClick To Tweet

Despite the hype and attention given to this area in mainstream media, the concept of robotics is not a new one. The first modern use cases of these machines arose during the Industrial Revolution. Fast and fixed machinery was created to streamline a whole host of manufacturing tasks, removing the need for extensive human intervention and effort. Fast forward to the 21st century, and we are now in the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ or ‘Industry 4.0’ as it is commonly known. This revolution is characterised by the rise of new technologies with data and computing power underpinning and influencing many business critical decisions. Businesses that fail to harness new technologies and analysis of data will fail to maintain a competitive edge.

When we refer to ‘robotics’ in the 21st century, we are no longer referring to clunky and basic machines that purely imitate human behaviour, but instead, a new opportunity to re-imagine business processes and their interdependencies. Today, it is simply no longer a matter of plugging in ‘dumb’ machines, but fully integrating smart technology with a pre-programmed knowledge of the end–to–end processes and best practice in place.

Repeatable and regular processes can be streamlined with robotic process automation. The finance function in particular, is one that is poised to benefit here. Think about it – many of the most complex and high–pressured activities within a company are financial ones. Even in today’s digital economy, many of these time intensive and high volume tasks rely too much on manual effort. From invoice processing, accruals and reporting to close, many accounting and finance teams across the country have to regularly overcome the headache of spreadsheets and manual data input to close the books accurately and on time. Furthermore, the pressure to deliver a 100 per cent accurate close can result in regular overtime and the creation of a somewhat fraught atmosphere.

This isn’t just a question of manual effort. At many points during the financial close process, the entire close needs to be suspended in order to wait for the successful completion of one step to continue. To manage this, many businesses may be using task lists and spreadsheets, which invites the possibility of human error. More often than not, this waiting takes place because some steps need a level of manual validation of a completed process. These ‘pause’ instances aren’t just inconvenient – they do conceal undocumented processes and hide the unnecessary manual intervention points. Error management is another considerable cause of time losses. Consider all of that time spent filtering through sloppy data to manually reconcile errors – this time could be better spent if it were re-directed to allow teams to work on more strategic and valuable analysis of the data.

Time to implement robotics

A patchwork approach to robotics is not an effective solution. There is little merit in replicating one task at one point in a process, and then another in a different place if these systems are not integrated with one another. A holistic approach to robotics is required to progress thinking on from a simple ‘user-centric’ model which mimics individual actions – to a ‘process-centric’ model which robotises both the application and the system.

For the finance function, holistic robotic process automation brings the potential to streamline financial process efficiency and also standardises these processes. At the most basic level, automatically generated reports ensure that you can rely on data integrity with the upmost assurance. Built-in business rules can eliminate the need to micro-manage and allows users to keep track of processes and trigger actions, whether at their desk or on the move working remotely. Make no mistake that strong opportunities and results are to be had from standardising processes across the finance function.

Robotics as an enabler

Business leaders can achieve all of the rigour with none of the effort, with robotics in place. As many finance teams will be all too aware, compliance can be a persistent strain. More time can often be spent on meeting compliance standards than on the tasks which those controls are programmed to govern. The reality is that compliance should be a natural by-product of any business process. By directly engaging with the system of a record, robots can validate, track and document complete processes end-to-end, to deliver a thorough audit trail.

The true strength of robotic process automation lies in their inherent ability to drive further self-remediation and improvement. By their very nature, robots generate streams of valuable and accurate data simply as a result of executing the process itself. Once captured and stored, this information can then be analysed and exploited to review previous performances and to hone in on specific areas for improvement. In ‘Industry 4.0’, business leaders are now acutely aware of the power of ‘big data’. However, it is not time to align this buzzword with robotic process automation.

A holistic approach to #robotics is needed to move from a ‘user-centric’ model to a ‘process-centric’ modelClick To Tweet

Performance, accuracy, analysis and productivity. The time is now for finance teams to stamp out inefficiencies. Working staff harder rather than addressing underlying processes should no longer be an option today. Business leaders that realise the true benefits of robotic process automation will be those that retain a competitive edge in ‘Industry 4.0’.