- The key to successfully automating workflows is understanding your business’s processes.
- Mapping process and focusing on pain points are some early steps businesses can take towards automation.
- The key is to figure out what type of automation works best for your business.
By Amity Delaney
Automation is inevitable, but it does not mean eradicating humans from your team. Rather, automation means putting machines to work so the people in your business can perform more valuable tasks, a report from CA ANZ Catalyst finds.
Automating Workflows: Powering future growth in accounting draws on real-life examples to offer accountants a starting point to update or introduce new software and tools into their practice that work alongside the people already in place.
For example, PwC has implemented a robotic auditor called RON that analyses transactions, relationships and patterns in a fraction of the time it would take humans to complete. It then flags interesting findings for the audit team to explore. But human judgement is still needed because RON cannot provide auditors with everything they need to know about the company and its management.
“In the report, we’ve tried to outline the biggest challenges while dealing with the fact that, yes, automation is a huge disruption to the sector,” says Jeremy Rowe, senior manager, innovation, at CA ANZ.
“The question you should keep coming back to is, what part of the service is most valuable to the customer?”
A guide to automation
The key to successfully automating workflows is understanding your business’s processes, identifying what can be automated and then applying the technology.
Automation isn’t a panacea, the report says, but there are vast numbers of software and automation options an accounting practice can use to make the workday easier.
The report outlines four types of automation, and the key is to figure out what works best for your business.
Basic automation: This saves time and makes some tasks easier by streamlining communication or making information more accessible in one location. For example, using a teamwork app such as Asana.
Robotic process automation (RPA): This is software that can be easily instructed by end users to perform high-volume, repeatable, rules-based tasks. It is used to automate the transfer of data across different systems, freeing workers from entering that data manually. RPA scripts can sit on top of existing applications, so often there is no need to change existing enterprise software. UiPath, Automation Anywhere, Another Monday and Blue Prism are leading developers.
Integration automation: This involves linking processes across various services. For example, a client emails a form and the data is automatically entered into software that then triggers another action, such as sending an email back to the client. You define the rules and set up the process, but this takes routine tasks entirely out of your hands.
Machine learning and AI automation: This is when software improves its functionality through repeated interactions with data. Machines make decisions and take action based on algorithms that enable them to “learn” from data.
Practical steps to automation
The report also outlines the steps businesses should take to successfully automate their practice.
1. Map processes
Start by mapping out all processes in your business. Interview staff to ensure you have a thorough understanding of how current systems work. Examples of questions to consider are: What happens when a new client comes on board? Who enters what, where and when, and how long does it take? List all the steps then look at ways to cut processes and/or speed them up.
2. Focus on pain points
Knowing what the pain points are in your practice and what services deliver the most revenue will help outline what you should tackle first with automation.
3. Data cleansing
When moving from old systems to new ones, take the time to review data and clean it. Remove duplicates, update information and eradicate obsolete information so your new systems can use the most relevant and up-to-date data.
4. Get external advice
You don’t have to tackle automating your systems all on your own. However, when looking to external consultants, make sure you are 100% confident they thoroughly understand your business’s processes.
5. Take an iterative approach to new processes
Train and support employees to adapt to the new software, and once it’s part of the daily workflow, introduce something else. As automation changes employees’ flexibility in terms of hours, location and type of work, consider giving compensation tied to work delivered using the new processes.
6. Pilot project
You don’t need to automate your entire business overnight. Start with a small pilot project to assess how your company and employees adapt to change. This should include repetitive, manual and rule-based actions, so they can be replicated in other parts of the firm.
“It is imperative for business owners to adapt by embracing disruption,” says Sunny Siribas, general manager, innovation at CA ANZ.
“They should understand the challenges and opportunities, refashion their operations, retrain themselves and their teams and put in place a culture that allows for continuous vigilance and improvement.
“The playbook was designed with this in mind and hopefully offers some help for accountants during this time.”
New software sparks new work practices
Adelaide firm All In Advisory uses automation throughout its entire business and helps other firms by analysing their processes and recommending the best software and automation to implement.
“The technology and software is the easy bit,” says All In Advisory’s general manager, Lee Duffield. “But there is no point putting in software and then using old procedures – we have to help them manage that change.”
“The technology and software is the easy bit. But there is no point putting in software and then using old procedures.”
Duffield says her firm helped a construction company adapt to a new way of working after its bookkeeper departed. “She was managing their jobs and projects via Excel spreadsheets and then she suddenly left. They had absolutely no idea how their own business was working and how everything was being done.”
All In Advisory introduced the company to Xero and Receipt Bank and showed them how to analyse the profitability of each project. “They had no insight into how their business was running,” says Duffield. “Now they can improve the business and also their profits.”
Alan FitzGerald’s pick of accounting automation software
Alan FitzGerald is the principal of Practice Connections. He’s been a specialist in tax and accounting software for more than 20 years, helping firms choose technology.
To stay in touch with other CAs and learn how practices are adopting new technology and value-based pricing, or moving to cloud-based practices and working with start-ups, join the CA Catalyst community on My CA, CA ANZ’s online member community.
To join, go to bit.ly/MyCACatalystCommunity