The following article is an excerpt from the latest Executive Guide, underwritten by Kyriba.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is the next step in the evolution of automation, using a software robot that mimics human actions. It is typically used in treasury and finance to streamline repetitive, manual processes, freeing practitioners up to focus on more strategic work.
According to AFP 2019 speaker Laurens Tijdhof, Partner at Zanders, while there are many new technologies that will ultimately be adopted by treasury, RPA is one that is already having an impact. “The quick wins are typically in RPA,” he said. “This is something that is available today; you can really start implementing it now.”
Tijdhof noted that other new technologies such as big data, machine learning and blockchain/distributed ledger technology require much more time and preparation to implement. “You need to have a data strategy to prepare for [those technologies], and you have to make sure your system environment is ready to process these new techniques,” he said.
However, even though RPA is easier to adopt than some of these other innovations, that doesn’t mean that corporates are flocking to it en masse. The technology is still new and it will still take some time before it becomes mainstream in treasury and finance. “It’s not very prevalent out there right now and I think corporates are basically exploring these things in terms of pilot testing and they’re starting small,” said Kelvin Ang, Director, Treasury Advisory Group, Americas Head for Citi.
Ang, who will is speaking in a session at AFP 2019, noted that many finance departments are playing the wait and see game, seeing what their peers are doing with RPA and whether it makes sense to follow their example. “Everybody’s trying to figure out who is doing what,” he said. “‘What can I learn from company A and company B? What are they exactly working on? And more, importantly why are they doing that?’ We’re not talking about the traditional, typical treasury management system. We’re talking about new tech.
Although many companies who have adopted RPA are still in the pilot stage, others have taken the initiative and are applying the technology in a number of different areas. Zanders’ Tijdhof has observed multiple treasury and finance departments using RPA for many functions; one organization that he has worked with has automated over 50 tasks. Some of them are fairly complex, such as getting FX exposure information from various systems and access points into one consolidated overview.
Ravi Iyer, CTP, Assistant Treasurer for Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, who discussed his organization’s RPA pilot project at AFP 2018, noted that most treasury and finance departments who are using RPA are doing so to streamline repetitive, manual processes. “Treasurers should look at the processes where they are spending a lot of time—where you take data from one place and have to rekey it into another place,” he said. “Look at how much time you’re spending and do some cost estimates. Then look at what it would cost you to automate those processes using RPA.”
Ang has also observed finance functions primarily apply RPA to tried and tested processes—highly replicable, standard tasks that do not require a high level of deviation. “It’s used for the simpler tasks like, for example, cash positioning,” he said. “So, in treasury, every morning, there is a treasury analyst who comes in, turns on the systems and enters the opening balance for the day. Then, he/she looks for information on the expected payments and expected receipts, and comes up with the expected end-of-day balance.
“Some companies are now automating this process so that when an analyst arrives in the morning, they no longer have to do this, but instead spend time onthe decision-making process” Ang continued. “This is a great example in terms of a very standard procedure whereby you can apply RPA.”
RPA can also be used very effectively in bank reconciliation. This technology is essentially not new; treasury management systems (TMS) have had a built-in code that allows them to match an amount in the ledger against a corresponding amount in a bank statement. What’s new is that RPA adds a bit more complexity, so that it’s not just simply matching dollar amounts and banks. RPA allows you to more easily jump from one system to the next (i.e., move from the TMS to the ERP), gathering more data in less time.
Ang likened the technology to macros. “I would say that most people understand what a macro is,” he said. “If they think about clicking on the exact steps that they’re trying to do, recording all the moves and then playing back again every single time they want to run or refresh the data. RPA does exactly that, except that it crosses and moves across the different systems and different environments.”
MAKING THE CASE
Building the business case for adopting new technology—any new technology—can be a tall order for treasury and finance. Many treasury functions have been running the same treasury management system (TMS) for a very long time.
In her conversations with treasury and finance peers at other organizations, Camille Felton, CTP, FP&A, Senior Lead Analyst, Financial Analytics and Solutions for Chick-Fil-A, has found that it is often quite difficult to get buy-in from senior leadership to invest in RPA technology. “This is not an easy startup cost to be able to swallow,” she said. “It may be a little bit more cost-prohibitive for treasury in organizations where funding is tight. Yet we must think about RPA as a longer-term strategic decision versus a short-term return.”
Download Emerging Technologies Part 1: Robotic Process Automation, here.