The classical view of automation

The classic perception we have of automation when it is spoken of, the image we draw in our mind’s eye and the parallel we think about – is the Ford assembly line. That assembly line was turned on around 105 years ago and as we all know, it changed manufacturing completely. As an investment and as a technology, it was simply revolutionary and raised productivity exponentially. Before, it had taken Henry Ford’s employees over 12 hours to produce a car, afterwards just 1 hour and 33 minutes. This 8-to-1 improvement in productivity became the dominating symbol of twentieth-century industrialism, forever changing how human labourers worked in the manufacturing assembly lines.

As with all change, not everything was for the good.

Harry Braverman referred to this as “the degradation of work in his famous 1974 book, highlighting the point that,  previously a car was manufactured as the joint effort of multiple highly skilled craft workers, but now all of a sudden the manufacturing process asked for assembly line workers to repeat the same simple tasks over and over again.

To underline how mind-numbing that repetition was, Henry Ford himself, in My Life and Work writes:

Probably the most monotonous task in the whole factory is one in which a man picks up a small gear with a steel hook, shakes it in a vat of oil, then turns it into a basket. The motion never varies. The gears come to him always in exactly the same place, he gives each one the same number of shakes, and he drops it into a basket which is always in the same place. No muscular energy is required, no intelligence is required.

Fear of automation in finance

When there is talk of automation in finance departments today, people are afraid. Hesitant. Being afraid of something abstract, unknown, new – is very human. The entire topic of RPA, automation in finance – seems to focus so much on cutting costs, reducing headcount and automating processes performed manually by humans.

By definition change creates insecurity, and change has not always been for the better – but if we stop to think about the work in finance today. The work performed by skilled accountants. The tasks, the activities and the processes that they participate in and complete on a daily basis – we notice something strange in the picture.

The work performed by human workers has already been degraded.

Why should anyone tolerate such work, being asked to do repetitive, mind-numbing tasks over and over again? Surely there is a better way to do this?

In corporations around the world, the financial department trudges along each week, month and quarter completing very familiar, repetitive and time-consuming manual work. Data is extracted into Excel and uploaded back into the ERP. There is little to no validation, and errors and time-outs cause endless problems. Emails get sent back and forth, employees are working overtime – especially during close.

Only after those processes are completed, does the business have access to updated, almost real-time data.

There is no fail-safe either, no poka-yoke. No matter how large or small your team is, if you are equipped with insufficient automation in finance, even sophisticated processes honed over years break down when key employees fall ill.

Why should anyone tolerate such work, being asked to do repetitive, mind-numbing tasks over and over again? Surely there is a better way to do this?

It doesn’t help, that it used to be even worse... 

The upgrading of work

When there is talk of automation in finance departments, people should be excited. Delighted. Going boldly forth to adjust and modify existing processes, working side by side with integrated, always up-to-date data through tools such as Aico, making full use of RPA and robotics in those processes where it makes sense – performing depreciation runs across all group companies for example. This time change will bring about a lot of good. The work performed by skilled, well-educated accountants will have more meaning. The tasks, activities and processes they participate in and complete on a daily basis will be augmented, assisted and sometimes even completed by the automatic processes. Leaving human intelligence to assess if the results are as they should be. Approving the work.

The role of finance in corporations today is changing, as always. The expectations made by businesses are greater than ever before, and the value-building activities expected from finance are dependent on people. How the department is organised, what is the available pool of talent, what are the tools and processes in use and how do they enable finance to conduct ever more value-adding activities, such as overseeing digital strategy to meet the expectations coming from business?

Embrace automation. Integrated automation solutions for the financial close processes will improve governance. They will break down silos and increase collaboration between your teams and employees, they will streamline workflows and dramatically increase productivity – most likely not an 8-to-1 improvement like achieved by the Ford assembly line, but dramatically enough in both the mind-numbing repetitive tasks, as well as the complex, labour intensive activities such as manual journal voucher control.

105 years ago automation degraded work – this time, at least within the subject of automation in finance, it will in fact, upgrade work.

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