As a trained CPA, I have often wondered how our own profession will evolve as digital disruption impacts both our clients and ourselves. In doing strategy work with clients, I often consider how digital disruption, through mostly Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, will eliminate what accountants and finance professionals do every day. The testing and roll out of robotic process automation in finance means that activities like posting invoices, or issuing purchase orders, or even producing complex financial statements, will likely become extinct routine processes.

Business owners often wonder how digital disruption will impact their business. And what role humans will play in a highly automated business world. I developed a metaphor for understanding the balance between automation and human involvement. So here is the metaphor about a diamond drilling ship and how it explains the changes coming to your business processes.

The diamond drilling ship

Robotic Process Automation in Finance Example

Diamond drilling ships are very large vessels that are constructed around a complex, expensive diamond processing facility. The purpose of the ship is to provide flotation and accommodation, not much else. The crawler, connected to the ship through a very robust pipe, crawls on the ocean bottom. This pipe sucks up thousands of liters of sea water and diamond bearing gravel bringing it to the processing facility. The facility filters, crushes, and sorts it. All in order to isolate the diamonds from this gravel.

Machines then weigh the diamonds and insert them into metal cans with barcodes. No one really knows the contents of these cans. Or whether they contain large or small, high or low grade diamonds. Someone from head office flies in on a periodic basis with a helicopter to pick these small containers up.  And under guard protection it is flown off the ship.

How this resembles process automation

Improved Security

First of all, the whole process is sealed from start to finish. The process is designed to prevent human intervention in the chain, thus leaving the diamonds secure. In the future automated processing will be secure and leave little room for human intervention. As a result, the need for human oversight will reduce dramatically. This will reduce the number of people in your company who are there purely to provide oversight.

Enhanced Filtering

The diamond ship sucks up thousands of tons of gravel and sea water, and then filters this through successive processes and keeps only the valuable parts. We are getting overwhelmed by a tsunami of data, some of it useful and some not. Business owners need high grade, reliable business intelligence filters. They need new systems to keep away what is not providing value.

Automating Tasks with No Added Value from Humans

The diamond vessel has mostly automated processes, with an intentional focus on little human intervention. The process removed the need for humans mostly for security purposes. Businesses will also have to appreciate this level of security and automation. But in the case of machines replacing human processing, the benefits will be huge. Automation will remove many routine tasks. Machines will eliminate tasks performed by humans at a small cost, especially where the individuals add little strategic value to the company.

Consider the processing of supplier invoices. Why must humans perform this action if 99% of the transactions will be posted in the exact same way as the previous thousand invoices? Right now, humans need to process information like customer and supplier invoices. However, humans do not add much value in the process. Humans perform this routine work. Some of them require experience. But the human’s experience doesn’t add additional value to anyone. Other than customer invoices being the lifeblood of cashflow, but that can be automated.

Extremely Clear Goals

Finally, the diamond drilling ship is there for one reason only: to drill for diamonds. Period. It removes everything that it is not looking for at great expense. Instead of looking at it as finding a needle in a haystack, consider it removing the haystack to find a needle. Every company processes data, turns it into information, and uses it to sustain their business and make good decisions. They will need to know exactly what they are looking for in that data. And be absolutely ruthless in filtering out what they are not looking for. If you do not know what your ‘diamonds’ are, then you will be in trouble. Or become a large, floating ship of a business with lots of activity, but overflowing with processes and results that do not help you create your own diamonds.

So, how will you find your diamonds?

It may be time to dust off, or create from scratch, a clear direction for your company. For what it needs to be in the future and what it needs to be today. Defining your diamonds is the most important step in building your own automation strategy.

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