Accounts payable, by definition is a cost center within a company; it’s where money goes out the door to pay vendors. But that doesn’t mean that accounts payable departments can’t contribute to promoting the financial goals of a company and proactively seek out opportunities to reduce costs, secure discounts and provide guidance on cash management.
While automation can increase the efficiency of AP teams and empower employees to add more value, old school views of accounts payable can hamper its ability to secure the resources and lead the kind of efforts necessary to become agile, proactive and forward-thinking. All too often, back office operations like AP are overlooked when it comes to digital transformation — even when their function offers up some of the best use cases and opportunities to maximize a return on investment.
Slowly but surely, however, the tide is turning. Adoption of electronic payments and automation in AP is on the rise. Companies that have adopted automated AP processes continue to experience faster payment and processing cycle times, with fewer invoice exceptions. Make no mistake, though-it does take some finesse to understand and sell the value of paying vendors more efficiently.
The old school attitude would be, “What good is paying vendors faster?” The new school vision, however, is that speed and efficiency translates into more opportunities for visibility and control. As a result, companies that leverage accounts payable to their advantage look for ways to balance prompt payment discounts and cash. For these companies, fewer errors and faster cycle times translates into better data and insights about g/l accruals, which means better control of cash. An AP staff that isn’t crushed under the weight of paper invoices and manual processes has the freedom and control to act as stewards over the company’s cash and financial health, rather than acting as paper pushers and keyboard slaves.
The good news is that the times are changing for AP departments and their staff. Old attitudes are evolving. And newer technologies that deliver on the promised efficiencies of automation more quickly and more cost effectively are making it hard for corporate leaders to cling to old attitudes and outmoded ways of doing things.
Intelligent process automation solutions available today capitalize on the flexibility and ease of use that come from systems designed to learn and adapt to business conditions. That translates into lower professional service costs for deployments, because workflow processes don’t have to be rigid. The rules, triggers and actions common to most workflow-oriented solutions can adapt without the need for custom code or heavy IT support.
The same is true for integration with existing ERP or ECM systems, where integration used to translate into more work and effort to maintain those systems, with mixed results. Often, it limited further innovation, because any upgrade to a system like an ERP meant putting mission critical systems and integrations at risk. Translation: so long as those integrations weren’t broke, there was little motivation to fix the underlying processes, unless the rewards were truly significant.
Today, machine learning technology allows companies to get up and running with accounts payable automation solutions that are integrated with their data and document management systems quickly and relatively painlessly. Those systems can generally handle 80% of AP use cases out of the box. And rather than coding or configuring for the exceptions, today’s intelligent process automation solutions put control into the hands of the process owners who can teach these systems how to handle curve balls by executing the right operations manually, once, in a way that allows the system to record and adapt to new user instructions.
Luckily for companies that have been stuck in the status quo, the decision to stay stuck is becoming more and more difficult as solutions become cheaper, simpler and more accessible. We’re not too far from a tipping point where employees exposed to newer, better ways of doing things will simply refuse to continue to work for companies that expect to treat them as manual laborers rather than as knowledge workers.
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