The Bots Are Coming
Getting robotic process automation right should be CPA firms’ future focus.
By LISA WILDER |
Does the possibility of robots in the workforce send chills down
your spine? Whether you fear a robot uprising, or you’re just scared
a robot might take your job, robotic process automation (RPA) can
be a daunting prospect. But the reality is that embracing RPA is
unlikely to result in a scene from “I, Robot.”
In your office, the tasks most likely to be automated are boring
chores, like payments processing or account reconciliations—
things you’ll likely be thrilled to hand off to an artificial mind. The
bottom line on bots is that RPA offers the tantalizing possibility of
saving money and time while allowing workers to focus on more
challenging and strategic tasks that require human skill and
At the most basic level, RPA is what it sounds like: a way to automate
routine and repetitive work using software bots. So, it should come
as no surprise this technology is gaining prominence and
importance in the business world. The global market for automation
technologies like RPA is growing by 20 percent a year and is
estimated to reach $5 billion by 2024, according to Deloitte’s 2019
report, “Automation with Intelligence.” What’s more, Gartner’s 2019
paper, “Predicts 2020,” estimates organizations will be able to lower
operational costs by 30 percent by 2023 by combining automation
techniques with redesigned operational and human processes.
With its potential for increased efficiencies, what could RPA mean
for you? Chris Denver, CPA, MBA, national assurance practice
director at International Financial Group, says it’s worthwhile to
begin with discussing “the elephant in the room”—what bots could
mean for hiring and recruitment of future accounting talent.
“Can a bot replace a public accounting firm partner who has to
exercise a lot of judgment in determining whether he or she
believes a client’s financials are free of material misstatement? No.
And the technology will never get to that point,” says Denver, whose
firm consults on and designs tailored RPA solutions for a range of
financial clients. “But could it mean the next hiring class doesn’t
have to be as large? Possibly.”
His point: Future accounting professionals should consider building
RPA skills, and current CPA firm leaders shouldn’t wait for new
graduates to tell them about RPA. Here’s what decision-makers
need to know now:
WHAT’S A BOT?
Maybe the better question is where’s a bot? You’ve probably already
encountered bot software as a consumer or possibly when studying
the customer-facing functions of various clients. The travel industry,
for instance, has become a major user of so-called chatbots, which
essentially execute predetermined conversations with customers to
make reservations or solve customer service problems.
For accounting firms, a bot application can be as simple as directing
a potential client to the right person to contact at the firm, or to
perform data capture and reconciliation—replacing human
taskwork that might take staff hours or days to do. What a bot isn’t
is a solution for ambiguous tasks or functions requiring complicated
judgments and decisions requiring weigh-in and review.
WHAT CAN BOTS DO?
According to Jeff Aldridge, intelligent automation leader at EY,
automation could help many organizations reach their long-term
operational goals. Leaders should approach RPA with a specific
outcome they hope to achieve. “What is your purpose in
implementing automation? Is it efficiency and cutting costs or
reducing head count?” Aldridge asks. “Or could it free up an
organization’s best people to do more value-added tasks?”
Generally speaking, bots can automate repetitive, static processes
and functions that do not require human judgment. With this in
mind, large firms might consider an RPA approach among not just
one but all departments burdened by repetitious tasks—even the
smallest firms can find value in automating at least some repeat
tasks. Why’s that?
Denver notes that as accounting firms and other professional
service providers move toward more fixed-fee arrangements,
strategic bot installations can cut costs in ways that allow them to
focus on potentially more lucrative, high-value services.
WHERE TO START?
Aldridge warns that even the simplest bots require customization
based on the technology ecosystem they’re placed in. “Each
organization has unique processes and supporting systems that
such bots need to access,” he explains, which means your first step
in the process should be designating “a strong C-suite champion”
who leads a discussion about the purpose and goals of automation
overall before leaping into buying or building bots. “It’s important
to begin with a broader business case to justify the initial
infrastructure investment and to see how such technology may be
leveraged across the organization,” he adds.
HOW MANY BOTS?
According to Aldridge, an average bot can accomplish up to
three discrete automations intended to be run separately, which is
why large organizations may run hundreds of bots. “RPA works
24/7,” Aldridge explains, “but the one thing they can’t do is two
things at once.”
Because of that, task scheduling is as critical as bot maintenance.
Denver adds that bot software can be very “fragile,” as the smallest
change in the application’s ecosystem can slow or completely derail
its functionality. One example: If a bot pulls in information from a
website that has recently been redesigned, even a seemingly small
tweak like a form field name change could stop a bot cold. Denver
stresses that bot function needs to be constantly monitored not
just for accuracy but for any change in their interaction with other
software. Simply put, when tasks change, bots need to change.
“There needs to be a shelf life built into bots,” Denver cautions.
HOW MUCH DO BOTS COST?
Since bots need to be designed for the software environment
they’re living in, they require customization. EY, which in recent
years has applied RPA within its own infrastructure, offers a rough
average estimate of what bot startup costs: A bot that performs
up-to-three discrete functions requires a hardware investment
(mostly servers) of around $20,000, a software investment of
approximately $15,000, and development costs nearing $50,000.
That said, Denver estimates some bots can be designed for
considerably less—or more—based on purpose and needs. While
current technology and budgets often require a focus on simpler
tasks, that will also change in the future. The basic equation to
justify the cost of investing in bots begins with accounting for staff
time and compensation saved.
WHERE TO LEARN?
Reading about artificial intelligence and RPA technologies and
attending seminars helps, but it also pays to watch RPA
development among peers and clients. Sometimes the best
learning is hands-on. Aldridge points to Gartner statistics indicating
60 percent of companies with more than $1 billion in revenues have
already started their RPA journey, adding that by 2022, it will be
close to 85 percent.
“One of my largest clients right now is a $20 billion manufacturer
who is trying to be the most automated finance organization in the
world by taking 50 percent of its current finance (human labor)
hours out through automation,” Aldridge notes. Meanwhile, EY has
installed some 2,000 bots throughout its global operation, 700 of
which are aimed at making internal operational tasks more efficient,
including in finance and HR, making EY one of the largest users of
RPA in the world, according to Aldridge.
In other words, some of your own clients may be able to offer deep
insight into bot technology.
Gartner describes the current state of RPA as “toolboxes where
customers are expected to build their own automation.” But rather
than focusing on the construction, Gartner suggests that
organizations spend more time thinking about goals because
technology will change faster than long-term targets.
In fact, Denver says that we’re not far away from a time when bots
will become so sophisticated that they’ll be able to learn how to
improve their performance and functionality. That means the future
leaders of the accounting industry don’t necessarily need to
become computer engineers, but they’ll need to better understand
technological evolution and how it can improve their performance.
“One of the things that public accounting firms really ought to be
looking for now are graduates with RPA skills at some level,” Denver
suggests. “A good cultural fit is most important in hiring, but it’s also
going to be important to recruit professionals who have a greater
comfort with technology—and possibly some hands-on skills.”
Further, Aldridge recommends recruiters focus on new graduates
who arrive with business strategy and decision support skills that
bots don’t yet possess and let bots do the rest.
After all, who doesn’t want a new, quiet coworker who does all the
boring drudge work? So, hand over your mind-numbing number
crunching and paperwork and welcome the bots to work.