Recently considered a distant dream, automation has become a reality in many businesses across the world. Since it offers to improve efficiency and add value in business areas that previously involved highly manual processes, process automation is increasingly sought after. According to Gartner, businesses across the world will be spending $2.4 billion introducing automation software to their organisations by 2022.
One area where automation is adding value is in finance teams. It is becoming well established in areas such as purchase to pay (P2P), where it is used to reduce manual strain in invoice management and procurement. Delays and inaccuracies resulting from manual work can waste time, and lead to missed payment deadlines, higher costs overall and a stressful situation throughout the organisation. As businesses grow, these issues are magnified.
Before you buy
It’s easy to see why something with the power to combat these issues would be introduced in this area. But while automation software has great potential, like any significant technology deployment, its success relies on the right attitude and an adequate assessment of the organisation’s requirements. As Johanna Robinson, Managing Vice President and Head of Finance Research at Gartner notes, successful deployment requires finance leaders to embrace a new mindset, or they are likely to experience failures at each phase of implementation.
So what should be considered before introducing automation in this area? Answering the following questions will help you present a business case for a P2P solution, select a system that works for you, and provide the right information to your provider on implementation:
What are the steps for each individual process?
The first key step to take before introducing automation in your finance department is to honestly and rigorously break down each of your finance processes. Assess the number of manual touch points that are required to perform each task. Those with the greatest number of steps to complete should be your top priority for automation, and the solution you choose must be able to take these on – or at least offer substantial support.
How long does it take for an invoice to be paid?
From initial receipt, a single invoice can take a long journey through an organisation before payment is made. Initial data entry may be time consuming, and companies that process many invoices will recognise that not all invoices can be manually entered without errors. Gaining spending approvals can also take up the finance department’s time, so a long time has passed before funds can be released. If your suppliers aren’t getting paid on time, you’ll need to assess where the bottlenecks are and ensure these will be covered by your P2P solution.
What are our supplier invoice volumes?
The more difficult it is to assess how many suppliers are providing your business with products and services, the more urgent it will be to install a system that helps you gain visibility – so you can start managing suppliers effectively and enjoying the subsequent savings. Equally, the more supplier invoices you receive, the longer these will take to process manually and the higher the risk of inaccuracies you’ll run. If you’re dealing with significant volumes, you’ll want to select software that will provide significant support with managing supplier invoices, and matching them to contracts and purchase orders.
The killer question: What are our IT requirements?
This question is very important – and not always easy to answer. Depending on the nature of the work you do, your IT policy may dictate the solution that’s right for you. The best fit for your business will also largely depend on your organisation’s existing IT infrastructure, IT investment strategy and internal security requirements. If you use a particular ERP software along with business intelligence, analysis and reporting tools, you’ll want to make sure that the automation solution you choose is compatible with these and can feed data in as necessary without issues.
To evaluate which option is best suited for your organisation’s needs it is critical to understand how each model works, assess how the solution would work within your existing infrastructure and how this fits with any P2P project goals. To help you decide which delivery model best suits your needs, let’s look at the delivery models available, how they operate and the strengths and limitations of each offering:
Cloud – shared environment
It is also important to consider that many companies, authorities and organisations have an IT policy that does not allow a shared environment in the cloud.
With a shared environment hardware resources are shared between you and other customers. The software supplier should clearly delineate different environments from each other, so that business data cannot be accessed by unauthorised parties. There may be limitations on integrating with other software, such as customised reporting tools, but it should be possible to integrate the solution with locally installed ERP systems. You might not be able to set up communication via VPN channels, but integration would instead go through the organisation’s web service.
Cloud – dedicated environment
Although this type of solution is more expensive, large businesses will see significant return on investment from this model. In particular, organisations with significant volumes of invoices and/or transactions, and/or businesses with specific requirements regarding integration and security will benefit.
The limitations of a shared cloud environment can be removed with a dedicated cloud environment. This model affords you much more flexibility in terms of possible customisations and integrations, enabling full integration with other systems and existing IT infrastructure. Furthermore it can allow you to set up stricter and customer-specific routines with regards to accessing the solution.
While cloud-based deployments are popular, on-premise solutions may still be the best fit for some organisations. The on-premise option enables businesses to manage both the operation and the maintenance of servers and software internally. As such you will retain control of the location of servers and will be able to tailor the level of data security as required. Integration with other systems, like reporting or business intelligence systems, is also a huge advantage of deploying an on-premise solution.
The same applies if you have geographic restrictions regarding data traffic – for example if data must not be stored outside of the country, an on-premise solution would be the only option. Depending on the provider, strict security policies don’t have to be a limitation. Some will offer access to the data and web based interface on the move, even in an on-premise deployment.
These questions are just a starting point. Clearly there is much more to be considered, such as the finance department’s goals and how these feed into the entire organisation’s mission and roadmap. They can’t be answered in isolation either, since many levels of staff should be involved in preparing for such a transformative deployment. Those carrying out finance processes daily must provide input, just as the financial director or CFO must set out the areas that will be most impactful in achieving the organisation’s goals – such as scalability for high growth, or overall cost reduction.
While automation solutions can and do offer significant business benefits, those that carefully consider their needs and goals will see the greatest return on investment from the solutions they choose to deploy.
Helena Lindblad, Head of Product Operations, Palette Software
Image source: Shutterstock/Vasin Lee