Before getting into what robotic process automation can do for accountants, it’s good to understand what it is. The following are some must know concepts and considerations.
What is Robotic Process Automation?
While Robotic Process Automation or RPA sounds like something from the future where a Jetsons like a robot is typing on a computer for you it’s much less exciting. RPA programs a computer to interact with a software program in the same way that a human would. The RPA software executes a series of steps. It could look something like: double click an icon to open a program, click a menu button, make a selection, wait, click a download report button.
What are Attended vs Unattended Bots?
RPA comes in two flavors, attended and unattended.
Attended bots require the interaction of a human such as clicking a button to tell a bot to start processing. Unattended bots run by themselves with no human interaction. They are usually scheduled to run at a certain time or are setup to start based on a trigger, like an e-mail being received.
How much does RPA cost?
There are two primary components that impact the cost of RPA. There is the cost of software and then there is the cost of developing the process automations themselves. Depending on the complexity of the process this could cost a few hundred dollars a month to tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Who are some of the best RPA software companies?
Microsoft Power Automate Desktop is one of the less expensive full featured RPA options on the market today. It’s a good starting point for small and mid-sized companies interested in implementing process automation. Power Automate Desktop can also be a good option for evaluating what RPA can do for your business without committing to a large initial outlay of money on software licenses.
You can download the application to test out on your own directly from Microsoft. It’s free to install and run unattended bots.
For large scale enterprise deployments or mission critical tasks you may be interested in more mature RPA software. Companies such as Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath have been around for a relatively long time in the RPA space. Their solutions give developers a lot more granular control over their process automations. The trade-off is that the automations can get a lot more complicated to build, which adds another layer of development time and cost.
Is there any Accounting Specific RPA Software?
There is no RPA software specific to accounting.
One of the benefits of RPA is that it can be used on software of any type, whether it’s web based or a command line program from the 80s or anything in between.
An alternative to RPA may be exploring additional features that are available to you with your existing accounting system. There are also many great services available that can automate various parts of the accounting process that can augment the software that you are currently using.
What makes an RPA process complex?
It’s important to understand the difference between what people think is complicated and what an RPA bot interprets as complicated.
Most computer systems were setup with user interfaces for people to navigate. There are buttons, text, dialog boxes, windows to click or navigate through with a keyboard or mouse.
In RPA, developers are setting up a computer to navigate through a program like a human would, but computers are not human. A developer must describe each box or button in a way that the bot can understand it and is able to locate it. This can be incredibly difficult at times because a lot of older software wasn’t designed in a way that a bot can navigate through it.
Additional complexity arises in RPA if a process changes often, contains a lot of steps, or can have a lot of different possible ways to be processed.
Is RPA as Easy as Recording a Desktop Macro?
On the surface, setting up RPA workflows looks easy. Most software packages have a record button that will let you click record, go through your regular process and the software spits out a workflow.
Unfortunately, this is just the start of an RPA development.
The vast majority of time a developer spends is on exception handling.
What does a robot do if the software crashes? What if an error box appears? What if you click a box and it takes 3 minutes to bring up the next screen? What if you click a button to run a report and nothing happens?
As humans, we have the intuition to know whether to close the program, restart the computer, or swear at it and go to lunch. RPA bots have to be setup to handle all of these different exceptions that could occur which can take a decent amount of time depending on how reliable the system it’s interacting with is and how many steps your process takes.
Is it worth the time and cost to automate a task?
Not all tasks are worth setting up a bot for. If you run a report once a month, but it only takes you a few minutes to run it there is not going to be a big cost savings. The bot itself may take hours or days for you to setup meaning that you could run a monthly report for several years before you get your time back from building a bot.
Tasks that are highly repetitive and occur often or take a long time to complete are good candidates for RPA.
What are the Benefits of RPA for Accountants?
RPA can have huge benefits for accounting departments. If you’re constantly working in an old outdated system, or performing lots of repetitive tasks, RPA gives us a way to automate those tasks.
There are some systems that are so engrained in an organization that it would be impossible or hugely expensive to upgrade them. RPA gives you a way to get more value out of your existing systems.
Many RPA software packages have features built in to help out with document automation. Accounts Payable Invoices or other transactional documents can automatically be read by the computer using OCR, parsed and typed into an accounting system.
RPA may not be the best solution for every scenario, but for the ones that it is a good fit for it can unlock tremendous value.
How to Use RPA for Outdated Accounting Systems?
RPA is most often used when extracting or loading data with old outdated systems.
Modern software systems usually have a way to extract or input data such as running SQL queries, uploading a csv file, or writing data with an API. These input methods are generally preferred over RPA because there’s less room for error when a software program talks to another software program using a direct interface that was built for it.
When these options don’t exist, RPA is a good option to explore. A bot can be setup to interact with the software in the same way that a human would interact with it.
If your organization is at the point where you’re ready to get rid of an old, outdated ERP, check out this article: A Guide to Choosing a New Accounting System (www.popautomation.com)
How to use RPA For Document Processing?
When talking about things that take people the most hours in accounting, it’s typically related to transactional accounting. Many RPA software platforms are able to be setup for document processing.
A common process might look something like the following:
- A vendor sends an invoice to AP@yourcompany.com
- The bot is setup to recognize when an e-mail is received that includes an attachment
- The bot takes the attachment and saves it to a cloud storage service, like Microsoft OneDrive
- The bot opens the attachment and runs it through an invoice recognition model to determine who the invoice is from and if it matches a format that it’s seen before or has been trained on.
- If the bot recognizes the invoice, it will pull out specific fields like the invoice number, invoice date, vendor name, and dollar amount.
- The information it collects is summarized and output into an Excel spreadsheet or .csv
- The Excel file is then attached to an e-mail at the end of the day and sent to you for review.
This is a very simple example of how something could be setup.
How to Train an RPA Bot for Document Recognition?
One of the key steps in Document Process is setting up an RPA bot to recognize documents and extract key pieces of information. This process of training the bot sounds complicated but really isn’t.
You train a bot by uploading 5 or 6 examples of an invoice from a vendor. Then go through those invoices and highlight key fields and give them names. Put a box around a date field and call it date. The computer then knows to look for this field when it gets an invoice.
To be fair, training the model can take a decent amount of time if you have a lot of vendors that send invoices in different formats.
Luckily, all of the big tech companies, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and many RPA or Accounts Payable automation companies have pre-made datasets that can be leveraged as a starting point.
When the computer doesn’t recognize an invoice it gets kicked back to a human at your company for review. You make the selections that it’s missing or correct any items that it’s unsure about and the computer learns from this. Over-time there are less and less exceptions as the computer gets better at extracting data.
What are the Limitations of Invoice Automation
At this point you might be thinking, wow this sounds great! I can get rid of my entire Accounts Payable team! Or you could think oh no! This is going to eliminate my job!
However, invoice automation is not 100% accurate. Even the best bots with a lot of training can only get to around 75% accuracy for processing invoices without any human intervention. It can be a very nice cost savings and reduce the amount of work your current staff is experiencing but there will need to be some people involved in managing the process and exceptions.
Attended RPA for Improved Accounting Productivity
Some companies have offshore processing centers that handle document processing, and for other transactional accounting processes. One example could be sending journal entries to be entered into the accounting system by a data entry team. Anyone who has mostly worked at small or mid-sized businesses probably thinks this is ridiculous, but it really is a thing!
An alternative to sending a journal entry off to a third party might be setting up an Attended Bot that can be run to upload an entry once you’ve prepared it and put it into the required format. This is a pretty small task but can have an outsized impact when done thousands of times a year. Rather than send it off, you could push a button on your computer and let the bot go through the steps of entering it into the accounting software.
There are all sorts of small tasks that take time, but could be automated. Benefits really depend on the size of the organization and how often a task is being performed.
How to use RPA Approval Routings and Workflows
Some RPA software packages have been expanding to go beyond document management systems to process management systems. They can be setup with approval flows and similarly to routing a document exception to a human for review, you could route a process exception or decision point to various levels of managers for approval.
Once again it depends on the size of the company and whether an approval solution is already in use, but the possibility is there to have one RPA software solve many different business problems.
What is the future of RPA?
As these tools improve over time, they will become easier and easier to setup. For now, there is a level of developer expertise needed to get the most out of these systems.
However, as they continue to expand in usefulness, they will go from automating simple repetitive tasks to more and more complicated ones. There is even the opportunity that rather than replacing everyone’s job in accounting, they could be setup to work in unison with accounting staff to make them more productive, reducing the amount of stress and time spent on tasks.