Automation is more than technology alone, so consider these insights when developing your automation strategy for your and your clients.
“Automation is the creation of technology and its application to control and monitor the production and delivery of various goods and services….Automation is evolving quickly, and business intelligence in applications is a new form of high-quality automation…It performs tasks that were previously performed by humans. However, despite advances in automation, some manual intervention is always advised, even if the tool can perform most of the tasks.” – Techopedia.com
In the accounting profession, “Business Intelligence” (which relies on the automated analysis of data) is becoming more ubiquitous. So as accounting professionals develop their automation strategies, they would be wise to heed the advice of Techopedia – that automation still requires manual intervention. Manual intervention/review should be considered part of automated technology (and not a limitation or a defect).
What does manual intervention/review look like, when does it occur and who does the intervention and how?
In the past, accounting provided the following proofs to the ledger that accountants and bookkeepers managed through hard copy paper, human confirmation and manual entry: payments, receivables, payables, and inventory. Old workflows were set up to handle incoming documents that would confirm the validity of transactions and the detailed information to be manually entered.
With the automation of secure blockchain, which confirms the authenticity of data coming in from a variety of digital applications, the old workflows that were established to manage the wait for the confirmation document need to change. They need to turn into workflows that deal with reviewing valid incoming transactions in real-time and pushed or auto-fetched digital documents.
The old workflows, if not adjusted to handle intervention or review, will delay the adoption of automated technologies and possibly even destroy any expected return on investment. Along with a change in workflow, another consideration is the training that staff will need to manage the incoming data. You should also both be able to answer the following questions:
Does it need to be manually pushed or is it done automatically?
Should we use integration between applications or not?
Do two systems bring in duplicate information and if so, which takes precedence? (Example, if you have an expense tracking application and an application that pulls bank or credit card feeds, these two applications will likely duplicate some transactions, one with a document pushed to the application by the client, the other with only the transaction detail the sending institution holds. The former is based on how often a client submits a document while the latter is updated automatically in real-time. This requires a manual intervention to mitigate duplication.)
Who does the intervention, when do they do it, and which application takes precedence?
Establishing the correct workflow means making sure both employees and clients are aware of how the information interacts and what steps are needed to make sure duplications do not occur in the final ledger.
In another example, one can write some applications rules for transaction allocation, but as in the definition above, some manual intervention may be required to handle splits and alternative allocation options. The questions become who, what, when, where and how will these applications be reviewed and possibly changed manually.
The investment in automation is expected to yield greater productivity. The upside of this productivity increase means employees should be able to service more clients -- and service clients in less time.
The natural outcome of processing clients faster may mean you are billing fewer hours per client. Other questions to answer (or ask) at this point are:
how do you justify the investment in automation to ensure return on your investment?
Is the increase in capacity to serve more clients alone justification?
Should you increase your hourly billing rate or go to flat-rate billing?
How does that change fit with employee compensation?
These are factors you may want to discuss within your organization early in the automation adoption process. You don’t want to run the risk of employees sabotaging the automation effort by reverting to spreadsheets and printed paper to boost the number of expected billable hours.
Even before you arrive at intervention/review, deciding which automated technologies to use internally and which client-facing technologies to use can be daunting. Luckily, the industry has many resources that offer information and insight into automated technologies in this market.
Once chosen, keeping the automated cloud system updated is not the issue as the application provider does that, usually every 16-24 weeks. In old server systems, updates happened annually. Consider how you will need to keep your staff and clients trained on those updates.
Mobile apps that enable a mobile workforce provide the majority of automation. However, that creates considerations about security.
Many of these automated applications are easily reviewed on a mobile device. The good part is the mobility, and geographic location of users is inconsequential. But that creates another consideration: security.
Who sets access permissions, rules for when and where to log in (I never recommend unsecured access points for staff), will the team be using personal devices or firm-issued devices? Passwords become fleeting and are now in a constant state of change, so a password protection technology is now needed. You'll need a new process for onboarding staff as well as for when an employee leaves.
How fast do you and can you change the access of any given user? The same is true for clients. When you institute client-facing automated technology, who, what, when, where and how does the firm manage that client onboarding? If a client leaves the firm, what is the process for removing your access to the clients’ application, and conversely, how do you removing your ex-client from an app your firm has implemented for them?
Automation technology does not necessarily remove humans from the equation; rather, it puts them on a different side of the equation and changes the emphasis of their work.
Future articles in our Realities of the Automated Practice series will also discuss automation’s costs, the unforeseen impacts on clients, the impact on your team/buy-in and then of course dealing with vendors and products themselves. Stay tuned!
Penny Breslin is the founder of MoneyPenny LLC, a consulting firm specializing in helping accounting firms and other businesses embrace the power of technology to simplify their operations and increase their profit margins. Drawing on her years of experience and her knowledge of what it...