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Automation and the Future of the Finance Function


Editor's note: <em>PwC</em> is an official UiPath business partner and <em>FORWARD IV Diamond Sponsor</em>. This is a guest post. Views expressed in this article are the author's own views.

Automation will soon be ubiquitous within the finance function because it saves employee time, reduces processing times, and provides excellent ROI. There’s no better example of the power of bringing automation to the finance function than what Amazon has done in the past five years. Together with PwC and UiPath, Amazon has been upskilling their entire finance function. And they’ve seen impressive results.

Bringing automation to finance

Since 2016, Amazon has been upskilling their finance function in automation technologies like robotic process automation (RPA). Their approach? Prioritize employees’ individual needs at every juncture. They’ve also empowered employees to not just participate, but lead their own digital transformation.

Two of the people who have been instrumental in these efforts are Jonathan Finch, Assistant Treasurer and Chief Technology Officer at Amazon, and Satpreet Grewal, Director of Intelligent Automation and Digital Upskilling at PwC.

According to Grewal, the biggest mistake enterprise organizations can make right now around automation is simply waiting too long to take advantage of the technology.

As we think about current financial analysts—or hiring in or upskilling new financial analysts—automation and RPA is going to be critical to the toolkit. Just like having Microsoft Office, just like having email.

Satpreet Grewal, Director of Intelligent Automation and Digital Upskilling, PwC

If Grewal’s thoughts are correct, then Amazon is likely ahead of the curve.

Amazon started the transformation with a single employee: a worker’s compensation analyst in Ontario, Canada. This role tends to deal with a lot of paperwork and data entry––it was an ideal test for automation. One by one, each of the employee’s most monotonous, repetitive, time-consuming work was addressed with automation.

Amazon asked, “How can we simplify your experience? How can we make your job easier?” Building each automation to address each pain point, most notably manually looking up data and the frequent need to copy-paste. After they saved 20 hours a week of work for that single employee, Amazon branched out to a few more employees and saved half their workweek as well.

To bring these kinds of results to more employees, PwC and Amazon took a multi-pronged approach. They brought in software developer engineers, business intelligence (BI) engineers, and product management functions to assist.

Offering a variety of ways for employees to get involved was important. They created a lot of awareness and excitement about the project with town halls, online courses, office hours, and lunch-and-learns. Amazon wanted to empower employees to be a vital part of the transformation.

Thousands of hours saved

Though they started small, Amazon’s approach has been nothing short of ambitious—and fast. In the first year and a half of the finance function transformation, Amazon automated over 30,000 hours worth of tasks. It turned out that a significant number of tasks humans were doing could be handed over to robots. Over the past five years, they’ve automated 75% of offshore transactional tasks while also reducing cash-to-contract cycle time by 75%.

Because of all the time saved from monotonous tasks, employees could spend more time on generating meaningful, business-driving insights. They went from spending 23% of their time on these tasks in 2016 to 57% in 2020. In the same period, they also decreased transaction processing time from 56% to 19%. They achieved all this while reducing the cost of finance as a percentage of firm revenue to 0.62% from 0.78%.

Upwards of 11,000 of the hours saved in the last year and a half is thanks to citizen developers. Clearly, all those learning opportunities geared toward generating interest in getting involved in the transformation paid off. Amazon currently has 45 citizen developers trained already. They expect to nearly double that number soon.

Best practices for automation implementation in the finance function

If you want to see similar results PwC helped Amazon achieve, consider a similar approach that incorporates these four priorities.

1. Make employee satisfaction the priority

Starting small or letting employees guide the transformation doesn’t mean slow implementation. Amazon started with one employee and built their strategy from there. It clearly paid off, and now they’re ahead of competitors in the industry.

2. Be clear about expectations

Make sure leadership is aligned on opportunities and taking the long-term view. No amount of automation can transform your finance function if you don’t have a unified tech strategy.

Remember, too, that while automation should be a part of your tech strategy from the beginning, automation isn’t a strategy. It’s one (important) tool in your toolbox.

3. Give everyone access

Finch says Amazon’s motto is: “A bot for everyone who wants one.” Make sure everyone can use automation and can build the skills they need to participate. Here at PwC, we embarked on a multi-year, ongoing program to upskill our entire United States (U.S.) workforce.

Read the full PwC story: Embarking on a Digital Upskilling Journey to Drive Change

4. Cover the small gaps

“Not all use cases will make it on to tech road maps,” Finch pointed out at a recent appearance at FORWARD IV. But that doesn’t mean that those use cases aren’t important. In fact, Amazon’s success is in part because they worked so hard to make sure everyone’s unique needs were considered.

“That's where going employee to employee to make sure you cover the gaps is important,” he said. Even when you have millions of employees, each of their jobs, each of their experiences is unique. Do your best to cover even the smallest gaps.

Editor's note: If you missed Finch's FORWARD IV session "Unlock the Power of Your People: How a Human-Led, Tech-Powered Approach Delivers ROI" you can still <em>catch the replay</em> (registration for on-demand access to session recordings is free).

Automation in finance functions of the future

According to Grewal, automation is coming to nearly every part of the finance function. "There is no area in finance where there is no automation potential," he said.

Some of the areas likely to see significant benefits in the finance function include purchasing goods and services, tax accounting, accounts receivable, invoice processing, managing cash, and managing in-house bank accounts. Not to mention the benefits finance functions could see from automating the order-to-cash process, source-to-pay process, and quote-to-offer process.

As Amazon and PwC consider what comes next, they’re leaning into more design thinking. Grewal emphasized that their approach always questioned old processes. They plan to continue updating old strategies and empowering citizen developers.

Transform your finance function with automation

If you aren’t already building automation into your technology strategy, you should start now. Leaders in automation and finance, like Finch and Grewal, have no doubt every successful finance function will incorporate automation eventually. The question is how quickly.

Amazon’s success upskilling its finance function demonstrates the power of centering your employees in your automation approach. They created the perfect environment for quick but thorough automation implementation by embracing a diversity in learning styles and empowering everyone to own their own upskilling experience.

Learn more about how PwC and UiPath are leading the automation transformation across enterprise organizations.

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