Robotic Process Automation in Accounts Payable


By Beth Mongold

June 1, 2018

If an organization wants to remain competitive, it’s no secret that they will need to automate many of their business processes. No matter their size, this will be a critical focus, particularly for AP Management. A whole host of emerging technologies are being applied to back-office tasks that have traditionally been accomplished with much human labor, and Robotics Process Automation (RPA) is one of the more valuable examples that has strong potential to impact financial departments. According to a Gartner report, “By 2020, robotic process automation will eliminate 20% of non-value-added tasks within the office of finance.” 1

Wikipedia defines RPA as “an emerging form of business process automation technology based on the notion of software robots or artificial intelligence (AI) workers.”  RPA is a world within the rapidly evolving AI universe, although the “bots” we are discussing are not smart but rather programmed to accomplish simple tasks that do not require decision-making.

Accounts payable is one area most suited to automation in general and RPA specifically. AP’s trajectory is increasingly focused on reducing paper and the need for manual processing, which is precisely what bots can assist with. In conjunction with other types of automation technologies and ERP systems, RPA can help integrate processes and do so more effectively than humans. For certain tedious jobs like data entry/migration, invoice capture, maintaining vendor files, and generating reports, robotic processing is far more efficient, precise, timely and cost effective than employing humans. Especially as complementary technologies improve (such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR)), the possibility of minimizing human involvement in these kinds of tasks may become an actuality. As a WNS analysis sums up:

                …autonomics will allow companies to re-define the way they think about the AP process. In doing so, they                        will radically transform the cost, speed, and accuracy of the AP function. The cost of a software robot can be                  as low as one ninth of an FTE (full-time employee); and robots work as much as 20 times faster than a human                  resource.

Like any tool or technology, RPA can help or hinder workflow. If an AP department is muddy and inconsistent on its own processes, robotics could easily add one more element of confusion. Human discernment is very much required to identify what processes should be delegated to bots, and with what degree of human oversight/interaction. There is no doubt that in some ways we are standing at the edge of a new frontier, and that businesses wanting to thrive will have to learn to incorporate RPA or similar technologies into their current systems.

1Gartner, When and How to Use Robotic Process Automation in Finance and Accounting, 20 December 2017