The best business uses for automation

Every business leader knows that robotics and AI can reduce operating costs and free up employees for more enjoyable tasks. But how is automation fitting into common business functions?

Finance

Finance professionals spend a chunk of their time collecting, tracking and chasing receipts and invoices – up to 2.7 working days every month, according to research by spend management specialists Moss. Yet up to 16 working hours for every 100 transaction-related tasks could be saved by adopting an automated spend management platform. That’s according to Saray Hamarneh, strategy and business development manager at Moss.

Waste-management company Biffa has triumphed after binning its old cash-collection system. Emily Munnoch, the firm’s finance director for shared services, explains that an AI-powered order-to-cash platform has helped to secure and accelerate cash flow – by expediting invoice payments and managing disputes and credit risk. “Our dunning success rate has improved by 22.5%, which has reduced overdue debt and improved cash flow for the business,” she says.

And there are further benefits. “All of our credit controllers love using the platform, and it has enhanced customer communications because we can now communicate electronically with more than 99% of our customer base,” she adds.

Elsewhere, Ilija Ugrinic, commercial solutions director at Proactis, an international payments software business, offers two examples. His company saved Screwfix £100,000 year-on-year after introducing “one standardised, integrated automation solution that streamlined receipt, approval and exception handling”. Additionally, Wigan Council, which deals with around 90,000 invoices a year, improved invoice processing by 66% using Proactis’ solution and generated an annual saving of £120,000.

HR and recruitment

Shayne Simpson is managing director of TechNET IT Recruitment. He admits that he took a risk in choosing a solution that automates recruitment processes and communication with candidates using staffing software company Bullhorn’s cloud-based platform. But he insists that the gamble has paid off. 

“In the last six months we have saved 28,609 hours, sent 144,269 automatic emails with a 53% read rate, and sent 45,852 texts,” says Simpson. “All of this equates to the admin of 30 full-time consultants being completed by a robot every month.”

Jason Heilman is Bullhorn’s senior vice-president for automation, AI and talent experience. He points out that the average recruitment firm currently automates more than 20,000 emails, texts, updates, notes and tasks each year. “Cumulatively, this represented an estimated saving of 2.5 million employee hours in 2021 alone, equal to freeing up three hours every day per recruiter,” he says.

Chris Underwood, managing director for executive search consultancy Adastrum, though, is ambivalent. “It’s important to question the reliability of AI in implementing the diversity and inclusion agenda during recruitment,” he warns. “Take Amazon, for example, which no longer uses AI in HR as it discovered its AI-driven candidate screening discriminated against women.

“Removing the human element from HR will only frustrate and limit the candidate’s company experience if interviews are robotic.”

Legal and compliance

The legal sector has been slow to take up AI and robotics. “The scope for efficiencies in legal processes is staggering,” says Jonathan White, legal and compliance director at National Accident Helpline. “While law firms have been behind the curve, we’re beginning to see significant advantages, particularly in automating processes around creating documents with common features such as non-disclosure agreements.” JPMorgan’s contract analysis solution, Coin, can reportedly complete 36,000 hours’ worth of legal work in mere seconds, White explains.

Tom Dunlop, co-founder and CEO of legal tech developer and provider Summize, claims to have developed the world’s first integrated contract lifecycle management solution. “The average reported time to review one contract manually is approximately 92 minutes,” he says. “With large organisations managing an average of 350 contracts each week, speeding up this process makes a huge difference.” Summize’s product, which uses AI and natural language processing, means a contract can be created in under two minutes and then the first-pass review in under five minutes. “Clients report time savings of 85% or more compared to manual processes,” he adds.

With nearly a quarter of a million legal contracts stored within one central system, Elliott Young, chief technology officer at Dell Technologies UK, required such a solution. “The legal team was reading approximately 800 contracts per quarter, so processing the repository would have taken 212 quarters or 53 years,” he says. Instead, a proof-of-concept system that combined AI and humans achieved the same results in months.

Marketing

“Automation presents a huge opportunity to build on the foundations of our relationships with customers,” says Carlene Jackson, CEO of Brighton-based digital transformation consultancy Cloud9 Insight. “If a customer follows you on social media, that could trigger a private message which encourages them to download a guide from your website.” That message could then generate timely emails with useful content based on pageviews or links which they have accessed on subsequent visits. 

Natalie Cramp is CEO of data science consultancy Profusion and agrees. “Automating even basic processes like email builds and sends can save marketing teams a lot of time and money. It can also, crucially, increase marketing effectiveness while removing the potential for human error.”

Of course, mistakes can still creep in. In January 2020, for instance, Aviva accidentally called all the customers in its email base “Michael”. Cramp continues: “If businesses can dedicate time to more complex automation, such as data management and algorithms, these can fuel highly personalised customer journeys and lead to a huge impact on customer experience with vastly increased sales.”

Nick Mason, co-founder and CEO of Turtl, a content automation platform, says that personalised content can generate up to 10 times more subscribers. “You can cut the time to produce sales proposals by 90% if you use pre-existing automation engines to create personalised digital documents,” he says.

Customer service

For Virgin Media O2, which has around 47 million customers in the UK, automating its contact centre was a strategic imperative – not least because uncoordinated messaging to the business’s 7,000 agents was leading to inconsistencies and knowledge gaps. 

Last October, it overhauled its processes using Intradiem’s intelligent automation solution. The platform was used to deliver training directly to agents’ desktops; to send notifications to help keep call-handling time within preset thresholds and to facilitate their ability to take breaks on time and to use the off-phone time to stay up to date on internal communications, explains Faye Herring, Virgin Media’s workforce planning manager.

“Within four months of launch, more than 3,500 hours of offline time were delivered to agents’ desktops via Intradiem to make productive use of what had previously been wasted available time,” she says. “And it reduced the average call-handling time by up to 60 seconds.”

Greg Adams, regional vice-president for the UK and Ireland at Dynatrace, offers an equally impressive example. His company’s work enabled UK health and life insurance company Vitality to adopt a proactive servicing model. “Its customer service teams are automatically notified when Vitality’s members encounter errors in their digital experience, so they can contact members and resolve the issue instead of waiting for them to get in touch to ask for help,” Adams says. 

He adds that the proactive customer support capability has helped Vitality to reduce policy lapse rates among members who come up against problems in their digital journey by 65%.

This article was first published by Raconteur in November 2022

Strike out: Industrial action could accelerate the shift to automated jobs

Set against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, the so-called “summer of discontent” in the U.K. — which has seen strikes from railway workers, criminal barristers, Post Office employees, teachers, airport staff, healthcare staff, and others—looks likely to extend through the winter. And the feeling of dissatisfaction is not limited to the U.K., with workers downing tools across the globe.

Although the U.K. lawyers finally stepped away from the picket line in early October, accepting the government’s 15% pay raise, Royal Mail staff and railway workers are currently participating in long-running industrial action to resolve disputes about salary and working conditions. 

Ironically, the crux of the matter is job security, yet the prolonged absence from work only strengthens the argument for investing in automation that will, ultimately, reduce headcount.

The full version of this article was first published on DigiDay’s future-of-work platform, WorkLife, in October 2022 – to read the complete piece, please click HERE.

Raise the bar with accounts receivable automation to release cash

Thanks to pioneering technology, there is now a golden opportunity for financial controllers to free enormous sums of tied-up working capital. This will empower employees and enable them to drive value and strategy, writes Kevin Kimber, Managing Director, Global AR, BlackLine

The coronavirus crisis has prompted most organisations worldwide to spend big on automating their financial services – but only a tiny fraction have upgraded their accounts receivable processes. Today, with the advanced technology and pioneering tools available, those who fail to automate their AR processes miss a golden opportunity to empower the finance teams and unlock the cash held hostage.

In November 2019, months before the pandemic hit Europe, PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that a staggering $1.2 trillion of excess working capital was tied up on global balance sheets. While there is clearly a latent opportunity to free this enormous amount of cash, ahead of the coronavirus crisis automating AR operations was not a priority for businesses.

Back then, the reluctance to focus on upgrading AR processes for the digital age was, to an extent, understandable, given the ease of borrowing for businesses. Now, though, organisations realise that optimising these processes has never been more critical. A recent Institute of Finance and Management survey suggests 55% of finance leaders are less than satisfied with how their company’s AR procedures have performed during the recession. And over half (52%) say that too many manual processes are the biggest weakness.

The combination of the lines of credit being significantly compressed and the increased demand to have cash more readily available – to drive innovation, boost agility and strengthen resilience – has elevated the need to embrace AR automation.

Historically, solution vendors possibly didn’t know how best to position the value and business benefits of automating AR processes. It’s so easy to pigeonhole AR automation as a single process primarily about headcount reduction and driving efficiencies. While these points are valid, there is so much more from which to benefit. 

Articulating the benefits of automating the AR process

Presenting the point that “if you deploy a technology like ours, you can reduce your headcount from, say, 16 to five people” does not go far enough – there are so many additional advantages now. However, if we reframe the case for AR automation, it becomes so much more compelling.

For example, a large, global B2B manufacturer with a high volume of low-value invoices might offer 30-day payment terms. Each day is worth $150 million, so customers paying 63 days late means $9.5bn late and at risk.

Not only is this woefully inefficient, but there is also friction generated between the increasingly frustrated finance team and the customers whom they are chasing for payment.

Deploying technology like BlackLine enables that cash to be collected and applied much faster, giving access to cash quicker, reducing the need to borrow to cover working capital exposure and tightening customer relationships. Ultimately, through artificial intelligence and machine learning, automating that process will enable businesses to unlock the cash held hostage.

More than that, investment in AR solutions starts a virtuous circle: the business becomes more agile, innovative, and resilient – all essential elements for organisations seeking to thrive in the coming months and years – because the cash is available. 

Looking at the broader picture, it’s a fallacy that robots are taking our jobs. On the contrary, they are enhancing and improving them. Humans are empowered to make smarter, data-driven decisions. And at BlackLine, we are transforming the relationship finance teams have with technology.

According to Adobe’s Future of Time study, published in late August, UK business employees waste more than a day a week on low-value tasks that should be automated. So much so that almost two-thirds (59%) of respondents are seeking new jobs with better technology to reclaim work-life balance.

Automation propels finance teams from the back office to driving strategy 

Indeed, the reduction of repetitive manual tasks transforms finance departments to be more human and less robotic – they become enablers rather than blockers. Automating the AR process means that risk is easier to manage. 

For instance, BlackLine AR Automation solutions put key information at the fingertips of organisations – from live payment data to debtor performance – so teams can quickly identify customer trends and maximise cash and debtor performance metrics.

It also helps to optimise relationships with customers. Access to and analysis of the data provides a markedly better understanding of customer behaviours, allowing the finance team to be more proactive, and helpful, when engaging. For example, how and when are they paying? What levels of credit are they on? With managing existing customers and looking for new customers crucial for growth, deepening these relationships is vital. 

Further, when supported by automation and data-hungry AI algorithms, finance teams are propelled from the “back office” to the heart of the business, driving both value and strategy.

Automated solutions, such as BlackLine’s, instantly improve a business’s cash flow, better protect revenue, and boost working capital and customer-centricity. We know what customers need to thrive in the digital age. Armed with our expert help and pioneering tools, they can unlock the cash held hostage while empowering their finance teams. Organisations that prioritise automating AR processes today will win tomorrow.

Small steps to accounts receivable automation – but large rewards

1. Understand that business outcomes are being challenged, unnecessarily. In 2019 PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that $1.2 trillion of excess working capital was tied up on global balance sheets. A more recent IOFM survey suggests days sales outstanding (DSO) has increased by 59%. Additionally, PYMNTS’s B2B Payments Innovation Readiness Playbook shows businesses that rely on manual AR processes often have a 30% longer average DSO.

2. Most AR processes are not fit for purpose – so say finance leaders. The IOFM survey finds that 55% of respondents are less than satisfied with their AR operation. Over half (52%) report that too many manual processes are the biggest weakness. Further, only 23% have utilised some kind of cash application automation. Notably, the lowest number of days taken to collect debt for those businesses using AR automation is 12.

3. Realise the potential of automating AR processes. Organisations that have upgraded to BlackLine’s AR automation solutions all report huge – and immediate – benefits. “You can reduce your costs by at least 75%,” says the head of credit, Atkins Group. Meanwhile, Veolia’s UK credit manager says the solution “has allowed the credit controllers to focus on collecting cash and managing risk”.

4. BlackLine AR Intelligence delivers real-time insight into customer financial behaviour to mitigate financial risks and improve cash flow and working capital performance. With cash flow vital to every business, AR automation is a future-proofed solution.

This article first appeared in BlackLine’s special report, Optimising the accounts receivable department, published by Raconteur in November 2021

Five ways automation enables finance teams to be more human

As we stride into the fourth industrial revolution, finance teams can work alongside machines to drive strategy and value. And, as the war for talent rages investing in technology is crucial to attract and retain skilled workers

The argument that robots will replace human jobs misses the crucial point that machines empower workers with a pulse. It has been this way for hundreds of years – since the original industrial revolution in the mid-18th century when the Luddites, led by Ned Ludd, a Leicester weaver fearful of change, attacked factories and their owners. However, it soon became obvious man worked much better alongside machine.

Now, as we stride into the fourth industrial revolution, which uses modern smart technology to automate traditional manufacturing and industrial practices, robots are taking over more menial, repetitive tasks. This capability frees up workers to be more human. For finance teams especially, this automation of processes enables them to be more human and drive value and strategy – here follow five ways how.

1. Paper processes are old news

In the finance world, paper has been essential for centuries – but in the digital age, we can speed up processes, and save the trees, argues Nitin Purwar, India-based industry practice director of banking at UiPath. “Within finance, data-intensive and repetitive tasks are commonplace,” he says. “Often further weighed down by legacy systems, paper-based documents and unstructured data, these processes can take up a large proportion of a professional’s day.”

Purwar argues that “this work isn’t what humans are best at and often isn’t what we enjoy doing. By automating these processes, finance professionals can be freed to spend more time on value-added, strategic activities that require judgement and skill, thus enhancing the employee experience all while saving the department time, money and improving the accuracy of processes.”

2. Manual ways of working are highly inefficient – and a turn off for talent

Businesses that embrace automation stand to gain a competitive advantage – not least when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Adobe’s Future of Time study, published in late August, finds that UK business employees waste more than a day a week on low-value tasks that should be automated. Tellingly, almost two-thirds (59%) of respondents are seeking new jobs with better technology to reclaim work-life balance.

Purwar from UiPath uses an example to explain the benefits of automation in this regard.“One infrastructure solutions firm we work with used to process all invoices manually, printing, signing, scanning and uploading 400,000 invoices a year. Now, a robot affectionately named Archie processes all invoices digitally, freeing up on average 11 minutes per invoice of time that employees can now spend focusing on value-added tasks instead. That amounts to thousands of hours per year saved.” 

There is more potential to realise, which is why organisations should double down on automated solution. Kevin Kimber, managing director of global accounts receivable at BlackLine, suggests that while many businesses seek robotic process automation, now “advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning take what is possible to the next level”.

3. Financial leaders can show their human skills and improve collaboration

Ash Finnegan, digital transformation officer at Conga, which provides commercial operations transformation solutions, points out that the pandemic has forced financial leaders to show their human sides and manage change.

“Out of necessity, most digital transformation journeys have been accelerated, with artificial intelligence being a major focus,” she says. “Financial leaders have invested heavily in AI and wider automation technology, entirely restructuring their back office to deliver their services remotely.”

Neil Murphy, global vice president at ABBYY, a digital intelligence company, posits workers who embrace automation can “work more efficiently, collaborate better, and ease the burden of administration in their day-to-day roles. Deploying AI-powered robots gives this opportunity, gifting finance teams more time to focus on more creative, problem-solving tasks and alleviate the pressure. Now more than ever, it’s time to put the human touch back into the finance.” 

4. Automation elevates financial professionals to become trusted advisors

Glen Foster, director of small business and partners at accounting software company Xero, says “time truly is money” for financial professionals. Xero data shows these workers can use up to 30% of their time on manual data entry – equivalent to 1.5 days a week.

By contrast, automation and digital software can free up most of that time. “Cloud accounting tools allow you to automate time-consuming tasks like data entry, bank reconciliation and payments so that you can spend more time advising, analysing data and focusing on growth,” he says. 

“Providing advice and insights on financials is more valuable to clients and businesses than manual, repetitive data entry skills. This ultimately sets accountants and finance professionals up as trusted advisors.”

5. Improve relationships with customers – and add value

FreeAgent survey from 2020 calculated that 81% of accountants have discovered that using automated software has freed up an average of two working hours a week. The same report states that this time saved could generate an additional £68,000 in revenue a year.

John Miller, chief operations officer of Addition, a London-based financial services firm, adds: “Automation has allowed humans to do what they do best: offer advice to the client, knowing that the routine tasks are done robustly and accurately.”

This article first appeared in BlackLine’s special report, Optimising the accounts receivable department, published by Raconteur in November 2021

Hyperautomation will revolutionise work – but what exactly is it?

Experts agree that the growing maturity of a cluster of technologies has transformative potential, but businesses must act fast if they’re to gain a competitive edge

Hyperautomation has been thrust into the spotlight for the second time in six months by Gartner. In October 2020, the research giant named it as one of its top strategic technology trends for 2021. Its latest report on the subject, published at the end of April, forecasts that the global market that enables hyperautomation will be worth almost £430bn in 2022 – a 24% increase on the previous year’s figure. 

“Hyperautomation has shifted from an option to a condition of survival,” says Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice-president at Gartner. 

But what is hyperautomation, why is it generating such interest now, and – most crucially – how can businesses best harness its potential? 

In essence, hyperautomation is a strategy that enterprises adopt to quickly identify, vet and automate as many processes as possible, applying a disciplined, holistic approach and mix of technologies. It spans the whole spectrum of operations, using digital tools to simplify many time-consuming tasks. These tools include AI systems, robotic process automation (RPA), low-code application platforms and virtual assistants. 

The concept is becoming increasingly relevant, Biscotti says, because organisations will “require more IT and business process automation as they are forced to accelerate their digital transformation plans in a post-Covid, digital-first world”. 

Gartner’s October 2020 report had noted: “Many organisations are supported by a patchwork of technologies that are not lean, optimised, connected, clean or explicit. At the same time, the acceleration of digital business requires efficiency, speed and democratization. Organisations that don’t focus on efficiency, efficacy and business agility will be left behind.”

Tackling low-hanging fruit

Peter van der Putten is director of AI solutions at cloud software firm Pegasystems and an assistant professor of AI at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He suggests that the drive towards hyperautomation has been “gathering pace for a while as the technologies have matured”. 

Their simultaneous emergence has created far-reaching possibilities. There is low-hanging fruit to be gobbled by business leaders, he says, although those who invest heavily in hyperautomation stand to gain the most from it.

“There is more to hyperautomation than streamlining workflows to save time and reduce cost,” van der Putten stresses. “There are strategies that businesses can use to link automation with business outcomes more directly. Realising the potential of hyperautomation hinges on robust governance and the quality of executive-level support – how it is implemented across an organisation and not in narrow niches.”

Hyperautomation will do to the knowledge worker what the industrial revolution did to the manual worker

For instance, the ability to manage exceptions through AI enables finance, IT and governance experts to deliver value for industries that already use new networks or decentralised cloud services. A recent global survey of 1,300 business leaders by Pegasystems identified key areas where hyperautomation has already been benefiting financial services providers. Respondents reported achieving quick wins in a number of functions, including finance, data management and production. They expect to see significant advances in areas such as supply chains and “partner ecosystems” over the next five years.

As an example of what’s possible with hyperautomation, take credit broker Loan.co.uk. The business, which has been building intelligent systems since 2014, has transformed mortgage lending from a process that’s traditionally been opaque, complex and painfully slow. The total automation improvements to date have “saved our 40 advisers and processors on average three hours and 45 minutes a day”, reports CEO Paul McGerrigan.

The company’s AI helper, Albot, can search thousands of lenders’ offers in less than a second while matching more than 10,000 criteria, delivering the lowest rate appropriate for the applicant’s circumstances. 

“Our smart AI underwriter can fully underwrite about 100 cases in 30 seconds, including credit searches,” McGerrigan says. “Previously, it would have taken an adviser 20 minutes to underwrite one complex case.” 

A workplace revolution

The company’s new approach has significantly increased transparency and, in turn, engendered greater trust among its customers. McGerrigan urges other companies to embrace hyperautomation, which, he says, “will do to the knowledge worker what the industrial revolution did to the manual worker. We are seeing the largest shift in how we work in 100 years. Most firms have been taken by surprise at the speed of change, while some are still asleep.”

Guy Kirkwood, chief evangelist at UiPath, an RPA software provider, agrees that the potential for hyperautomation is huge. “In the US alone, 2.6 trillion hours of work a year are automatable,” he says, noting that the pandemic-induced lockdowns have added impetus to the trend. 

“Work will be revolutionised,” Kirkwood predicts. “Almost over night, employees were expected to work from home, deal with unfavourable economic conditions and handle a huge rise in their workloads in areas such as customer service and data entry. Many turned to automation to adapt.”

He points to a firm providing smart infrastructure that used to print, sign, scan and upload 400,000 invoices a year manually. The business “now has a robot that performs these tasks digitally. This means that no employee needs to physically be in the office to process an invoice.”

Now that businesses have been catapulted into the digital age, regardless of their industry, we are on the verge of a new era of work in which hyperautomation will play a much greater role. Companies that make the leap today and go big on automation will be winners tomorrow. 

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s AI for Business report in May 2021