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Robotic Process Automation: a key priority for CFOs in 2021

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Digital investments are a key priority for CFOs in 2021, according to a recent Gartner survey of 173 CFOs.

The survey outlines that technologies are being deployed by CFOs in an effort to accelerate digitisation, optimise cost and meet new pandemic-shaped customer preferences, including greater speed, multichannel delivery and always-on availability. CFOs are seeking to dramatically accelerate digital business transformation at scale, to create digitally enhanced and streamlined business models.

In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused rapid digitisation for many businesses, with new hybrid working models also illuminated significant shortcomings. As outlined by Alexander Bant, chief of research in the Gartner Finance practice, “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced CFOs to abruptly assess both their organisations’ and functions’ current digital capabilities, and they have clearly found many areas lacking,”

Looking at 2021, Bant believes it will be paramount for CFOs to speed up digital investment plans. “Next year will be about accelerating digital investment timelines from the pace of a multi-year marathon to a 12-month sprint.” However, the Gartner survey also revealed that most CFOs are not confident they will meet their highest priority digital objectives in 2021.

Robotic Process Automation: A Top CFO Digital Priority

Of the top 5 digital priorities identified by the Gartner survey, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and other workflow automation technologies ranks second.

RPA is system-agnostic software that can execute tasks and interact with applications such as Excel and Web Based Core Systems (Payroll, HR, CRM, Finance) just as a human would. RPA automates tasks, operating error-free, nonstop and ten times faster than humans.

The power of RPA lies in its ability to be quickly redeployed within current and legacy systems, freeing up team members from repetitive and transactional tasks. RPA is currently being deployed to undertake processes including:

  • HR: on-boarding, off-boarding, request fulfilment

  • Payroll: data processing, checks and balances

  • Work, Health & Safety: compliance, incident management

  • Finance: financial transactions, reporting, invoice processing

  • Sales and Marketing: preparation, CRM inputs and outputs

In 2021, cost optimisation remains key. CFOs should focus on investments that drive positive business outcomes and enhance employee performance within distributed working environments. RPA contributes directly to cost optimisation. As Bant suggests:

“Fortunately, many digital priorities, such as RPA, should also be supportive of CFOs’ cost optimisation goals, at least long-term.”

How CFOs can meet their RPA Objectives in 2021

66% of CFOs indicated that RPA and other workflow automation technologies were a top priority for 2021. See Figure 1. However, 56% of CFOs surveyed by Gartner also anticipated difficulty achieving their RPA and automation goals.

Source: Gartner, November 2020

CFOs can meet their RPA Objectives in 2021 through the following:

Funding and Staff

As Melanie O’Brien, VP, Gartner outlines, “RPA initiatives can be relatively low cost and the technology is mature so, if it is implemented well, it can yield benefits quickly,” When seeking buy-in, O’Brien suggests “Try to structure these investments as cost-neutral, where the cost is offset by measurable efficiency gains.”

Leveraging internal staff as citizen developers helps keep RPA expertise within the organisation. Successful RPA adoption sees internal staff grow the project beyond its original scope, actively encouraging other activities and tasks to be automated.

Measurement and Validation

Most CFOs have already conducted small-scale RPA deployments, experimenting with the technology and seeing firsthand the potential for significant ROI. In 2021, CFOs are seeking to achieve RPA at scale. For fast and effective ROI, it is vital to measure, undertake a Proof of Value and validate assumptions before deploying an RPA solution. Harvestable ROI can be measured using process effectiveness diagnostic tools and Software Robots analytics such as VisibleSky™.

Goals and Metrics

Successful long-term RPA projects require a continuous performance management methodology. Performance metrics should align with company priorities. For CFOs to meet their RPA Objectives in 2021, it is important they conceptualise RPA rollout as stages of maturity.

Gartner outlines a 3-phase process of maturity with three distinct waves of benefits. These phases are detailed below, showing how full-time employees (FTEs) are increasingly freed up as the RPA rollout matures.

The three phases:

  • Phase 1: RPA reduces manual errors and increases processing time. 1 FTE’s worth of time is freed.

  • Phase 2: More bots are operationalised. FTEs are redeployed to high-value work, increasing productivity and regulatory compliance.

  • Phase 3: Additional FTEs are redeployed, significant efficiencies are gained.


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