Should Robots Run the Accounting Department?

By Steve Smith, Esker

If you’ve ever worked in an accounting department that relies on manual processes, you’ll know exactly how days filled with tedious data entry tasks can make you feel: like a robot.

It’s inevitable. But most highly trained professionals in the accounting department didn’t enter the accounting field to become invoice sherpas. Not only does the tedious drudgery of keying in data on a computer and shepherding invoices from one place to another take a toll on employee morale, it has other significant downsides.

None of us are perfect, which means that a reliance on a manual accounts receivable (AR) process will inevitably lead to mistakes and potential compliance failures. Equally important, those inaccurate invoices translate into late or even missed payments from customers, not to mention the damage caused to the customer relationship.

Does that mean that jettisoning people for a fleet of robots in the accounting department is the best way to eliminate errors and avoid the displeasure of understimulated employees? It certainly doesn’t. Trained accounting professionals are critical for ensuring your company is meeting compliance obligations and able to provide strategic insights on improving the efficiency and financial performance of your business. People will always be the critical foundation of an effective accounting department.

Nevertheless, there are ample reasons to find a way for technology to free up accountants to pursue more strategic work that can boost the bottom line. One example: technology such as robotic process automation (RPA) presents a flexible and economic solution that prevents your staff from having to act like invoice escorts.

If you wonder whether making the leap to implement sophisticated technology to replace mundane tasks currently handled by your accountants will make you a pioneer (and let’s face it, most accountants don’t want to be trailblazers), rest assured that you’re in good company.

In fact, research firm Gartner Inc. reported that global spending on RPA software was estimated to have reached $680 million in 2018, an increase of nearly 60 percent from 2017. Gartner also projected that growth would continue to be brisk, estimating that RPA software spending would hit $2.4 billion by 2022.

The rationale for this rapid embrace of RPA – which Gartner reported was led by banks, insurance companies, utilities and telecom firms – was straightforward and based on the benefits that come from automating tasks that would otherwise be handled by people.

“End-user organizations adopt RPA technology as a quick and easy fix to automate manual tasks,” Cathy Torbohm, a Gartner vice president, said in a press release about the research results. “Some employees will continue to execute mundane tasks that require them to cut, paste and change data manually. But when RPA tools perform those activities, the error margin shrinks and data quality increases.”

We all know what increased accuracy and improved data quality means when it comes to handling customer invoices: security and scalability, greater consistency, reduced costs and happier employees.

An example of how this all works can be found in Spain, where the Bel Group, a world leader in branded cheese and a major player in the healthy snack market, opted to automate its AR process. Like so many large organizations, Bel was eager to get rid of paper invoices altogether and better utilize automation to ensure customer invoices are accurate and received quickly.

The new process integrated seamlessly with its existing IT infrastructure and drastically increased invoice traceability. The cost-savings, enhanced visibility and improved efficiency that Bel has experienced are the direct result of handing over manual data tasks to technology.

Maybe people and robots can live together just fine after all.

Steve Smith is U.S. chief operating officer at Esker, a worldwide leader in cloud-based document process software to automate order processing, accounts receivable, accounts payable, purchasing and more. Smith is responsible for all operations in all of the Americas.