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Tech & Innovation

RPA: Cutting costs & making best use of tax & accounting talent

Samantha Mansfield  Founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC

Samantha Mansfield  Founder of Samantha Mansfield LLC

Tax & accounting firms are increasingly looking into intelligent automation, an innovation that combines AI with RPA, to automate their work processes

The idea of robotic process automation (RPA) likely conjures images of metal, mechanical people sitting in the desk next to you. Add into that the prediction from the World Economic Forum that within the next four year, “the time spent on current tasks at work by humans and machines will be equal,” and you may begin to wonder what your work team will look like.

Of course, once we set aside the sci-fi imagery and learn more about RPA, we can see why 73% of respondents to Deloitte’s Global Intelligent Automation Survey said they have already started to implement intelligent automation.

What is RPA?

RPA is software technology that is programmed to automate rules-based, repetitive tasks. It is designed to interact with the user interface of technology just like a staff member would. The programs that RPA automates do not have to be integrated or otherwise connected; however, these processes must be procedural and clearly defined because RPA alone does not include artificial intelligence (AI).

Intelligent automation, on the other hand, combines AI with RPA. This means it can be applied to more complex scenarios, and can be leveraged for more than strict rules-based processes. AI adds the ability for the automation to learn and “think” through processes.

Also, RPA has to be maintained and updated — it does not learn new methods or procedures, absent of any machine learning. Any changes to the software or the process RPA is automating would have to be programmed into the RPA as an update. This is where Automation as a Service (AaaS) becomes highly valuable to professional service organizations, like tax & accounting firms.

AaaS comes online

Early adopters of RPA were large organizations with skilled technical staff that could program the bots to perform the desired tasks. Most accounting and finance teams do not have access to these kinds of resources and therefore may feel that leveraging RPA is out of their reach. However, AaaS companies are emerging, and RPA is being built into newly available systems.

Due to the maintenance requirements for RPA, such as updating systems and process changes, many organizations are moving RPA into the cloud instead of maintaining the program on internal networks. The Deloitte survey also found that “64% of respondents use some form of AaaS, most often for end-to-end development, followed by management and maintenance of automations, then development of automations.”

accounting

Companies like ElectroNeek, for example, offer professional service firms and other organizations an option to license the technical knowledge and skills of their team to build automation instead of paying for the software and then having to maintain it. There are other models as well, including what Microsoft offers, to give professional service firms many options when deciding on this path.

Prices are expected to decrease 10% to 15% in 2020, on average, for AaaS services and an additional 5% to 10% decline in 2021-2022 for RPA, according to research from Gartner. In fact, such price drops are common as technology starts moving into early majority usage. Forrester Research predicts that like machine learning “RPA will become an embedded feature in many platforms by the end of 2021.”

The obstacles that have hindered access to RPA are going way, and the next obstacles will include fixing broken processes and creating a vision of what automation can do for your firm.

Use cases

It’s no surprise that interest in RPA grew during the pandemic. People were working remotely, and firms that faced profitability challenges were struggling to find talent as well. These drivers to RPA quickly became a topic of discussion, not just around the IT department alone, but among business leaders as a whole.

More than one-third of all use cases were in the finance and accounting space, according to IBM, and one-third of today’s bots are in the finance industry. No matter your firm’s specialty, many accounting and finance functions are cited as good examples of use cases for RPA within these organizations.

McKinsey & Co. notes that it “makes sense from a cost/benefit perspective to automate about half of the work that can be technically automated using RPA and related task-automation technologies” and that includes everything from timesheet reconciliation, to accounts payable, payroll, and standardized reporting. Business leaders will continue to identify the many processes that burden their teams which could instead be performed by a bot. By removing these repetitive tasks from their talent’s daily work routine, management can leverage their talent’s true specialized skills — and that is especially true of accounting professionals.

Process & transformation count

We can automate many more processes, but that doesn’t mean all existing processes should be automated. For years we have been taking manual, paper-intensive processes and digitizing them, yet we have retained those inefficiencies inherent to manual systems. Clearly, the benefits of any technology are often not fully realized when these inefficiencies remain in place. If this sounds familiar, use this opportunity to take intelligent automation to the next level and analyze where inefficiencies exist within your own firm. You can start by asking questions, such as:

    • Are we maximizing what our tools can do?
    • Do we have people performing tasks simply because “they have always done it”?
    • Are we stepping back to assess if a process is even needed any longer?

Don’t be too hard on yourself, it can be challenging to answer these questions, often because you are so close to it. Ask others for fresh perspectives, and get diverse perspectives by asking people in other departments, new staff members, or a consultant for their observations and ideas. And make sure you are open to the feedback — too often, we can become married to our processes, and not really see if we’ve outgrown them or there’s room for improvement.

With new technology comes new potential, but only if we embrace the change and are willing to transform. We are not attempting to just automate the old, or digitize the manual; instead, we are looking to leverage these new tools in order to transform our operations and leverage the skills of our talent more effectively.

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