Articles

Buying More Time with Robotic Process Automation

  • By Joanne Oh
  • Published: 10/21/2022
Laptop with file graphics

The AFP FP&A Mini Case Study series is designed to help you build up key FP&A capabilities and skills by sharing examples of how leading practitioners have tackled challenges in their work and the lessons learned. In this case study, the regional head of FP&A at a global pharmaceuticals manufacturer shares how robotic process automation (RPA) saved the FP&A team time to work on tasks that added value to the company.

Presented at an AFP MEA FP&A Advisory Council meeting, this case study contains elements that are anonymized to maintain privacy and encourage open discussion.

INSIGHT: AUTOMATING REPETITIVE MANUAL PROCESSES FREES UP TIME FOR QUALITY ANALYSIS BUT REQUIRES CAREFUL PLANNING TO PREVENT LOCKING IN STAGNANT PROCESSES.

Company Size: Large
Industry: Pharmaceuticals
Geography: Middle East and Africa
FP&A Maturity Model: Technology & Data

Technology and data: The leading practice is a standardized enterprise reporting platform that is seamlessly integrated with a common data repository, allowing for automated data gathering, report generation and dissemination that is customized to the individual with self-service and exploration.

BACKGROUND: GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE COMPANY

The regional head of FP&A at a publicly traded global pharmaceuticals manufacturer with multi-billion-dollar revenue had a goal: to reclaim the time they were spending on building reports and direct that time into business advisory.

The company decided to implement robotic process automation (RPA) across different functions and countries with a goal of saving millions of hours across the whole organization. The company ran a global competition across different functions and regions to select the best ideas which could be scalable at global level. This idea, titled "turning data into insights" — using RPA for the FP&A function — was selected due to its viability and scalability.

CHALLENGE: THE WORK OR DIFFICULTY THAT FP&A HAD TO ADDRESS

Every month, the team had to answer the question of what happened and explain its performance. It was a lengthy process to prepare reports for management every month. To start, the team downloaded all the reports related to profit & losses, go-to-market sales, e-market sales and more. The team members would retrieve and reorganize the data, then compare the actuals in the reports to the budget and identify all the key variances. Finally, to understand the reasons for these variances, they asked the relevant business partners questions about the business drivers, which required sending tens of emails, waiting on responses, and then preparing that input.

While this last step — analysis — is the most important, the team members had only a limited amount of time to try to have a quality conversation with the business partners and run quality scenarios. They spent 70 percent of their time in the data and emailing steps, and only 30 percent of their having quality conversations.

APPROACH: HOW FP&A ADDRESSED THE CHALLENGE

The FP&A team initiated a project to address its challenge around time. In the end, the company decided to implement robotic process automation (RPA), which completes certain steps based on preset rules. The team established these rules to download all the necessary reports, run analyses based on preset rules, email business partners on behalf of the FP&A team (asking for additional information related to variances), and aggregate the emails into a meaningful report.

RPA technology can be used for many tasks, including:

  • Logging in to applications.
  • Moving files and folders.
  • Reading and writing to databases.
  • Scraping data from the web.
  • Connecting to system APIs.
  • Extracting content from documents, PDFs, emails and forms.
  • Opening emails and attachments.
  • Making calculations.

The applications of RPA are varied too. It can be used to automate payroll within HR services. And it can automate the personal administration in supply chain demand planning and inventory IT service.

When deciding which processes to automate, look for ones that are:

  • Highly manual (because if it’s already automated, there is limited benefit to RPA).
  • Repetitive.
  • Rules-based (because a process that changes frequently won’t be sustainable to keep up through RPA).
  • High volume/frequency.
  • Structured and standard with low exception rates.

OUTCOME: WHAT CAME OF FP&A’S EFFORTS AND WHAT WAS LEARNED

After implementing RPA, the FP&A team improved its cycle time, shortening delivery by two working days per month, which increased the team’s work capacity as it gave the team nearly 200 hours per year — and this was only for one country within a global company! The company will duplicate this project across FP&A globally and look to save thousands of hours annually.

The hours saved will be redirected back to the FP&A and enable the team to improve the quality of its interactions with business partners, ultimately producing actionable insights that help the business realize potential opportunities and grow its revenue. There is another benefit that is hard to quantify but is equally valuable: enhancing the work experience for both FP&A and its internal customers as they spend more time on higher-value work.

DISCUSSION: A Q&A SESSION AMONG COUNCIL MEMBERS

Q: You described RPA like it’s a standalone product, but it seems what you’ve implemented is a macro or an algorithm which I've often seen included in other software packages. In your experience, is that RPA an independent package or is it embedded in other packages?

A: We implemented RPA as a standalone project using a software called UIPath, but it was connected to other data sources. So, it's executing a series of rules that are connected to databases, data, sources and outputs, connected to other sources of data. We had to do other complementary projects, such as PowerApps, to have standard inputs when we collect comments from others.

Q: Finance professionals often fear that technology is taking over. But I think from your presentation it is clear that there are certain soft skills that we must develop as finance professionals to continue to deliver value in the face of technology. Are there any skills that stand out to you?

A: In the past, there may have been a premium for being an Excel wizard; we can now redirect that expertise to being an analytical wizard, or a business specialist, or a relationship builder! There is space for being an out-of-the-box thinker in terms of how to apply this tool.

Q: Automation technology is leading to improvements in data analytics; however, automation technology also has some limitations. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) cannot do strategic thinking or generate out-of-the-box insights. What role do you think RPA plays in helping FP&A teams?

A: There is a continuum of automation, and RPA allows you to do what you're already doing but faster. AI and machine learning are on the far end of the continuum, like jumping to lightspeed. When you get there, you can ask questions like, what is the role of the person? What is the skill set of the person? And how do you keep a human in the loop?

With RPA it’s much simpler, as the key advantage is that it’s giving you time back to do more automation, work on strategy or develop relationships with business partners.

Q: RPA has the ability to take what you are doing and do it faster. But what if your existing process is not the best solution? What if some steps need to be cut because they don’t add value or could be done in a different tool? Does RPA hold the risk of locking a method into place that could or should change?

A: I agree 100 percent that one of the steps that should be considered before implementing any automation solution is analyzing the processes and eliminating all non-value-adding activities. Ensure that the systems, process and data source are stable and will continue in the long term with no potential changes in the short term. Otherwise, the RPA project will turn into a waste of time and effort.

Selecting the right tool — and possibly the right complementary tools — is an important step as well. RPA is not the only automation software; there are other tools ranging from the simple to the complex. FP&A professionals should understand the process, business needs and company’s capabilities before deciding which tool to implement.

Build up key FP&A capabilities and skills with AFP’s FP&A Maturity Model, a roadmap to help you and your team become leading practitioners.

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