A Finance VP Looks at Workflow Automation

As far as financial guys go, Craig Albright has pretty much seen it all. Currently the VP of Finance & Strategy for Xerox Large Enterprise Operations in the US and Europe, he directs regional finance professionals who provide operational support; planning, budgeting and forecasting; and control systems. He’s experienced firsthand the challenges faced by his peers in enterprises everywhere, and he knows how financial processes can help or hurt productivity. In this interview, Craig shares observations and insights on the subject.

What workflows are commonly found in financial operations?
The most common workflows in finance are centered in transaction processing – for example, invoice processing or expense management. There are also general accounting and risk management workflows – for example compliance management.

It’s important to identify the labor- and document-intensive financial processes and identify solutions to drive productivity. A good example would be in transforming AP transaction processing to increase the amount of automated workflow to replace manual effort.

How do paper-based processes impact financial workflows?
I see paper-based processes all around, including the simple process of getting signatures for incentive payouts or accounting representation letters. The old way of working is to circulate the paper for signatures, sign / scan / forward … sign / scan / forward, etc. It’s too paper-intensive and time-consuming.

New ways of working include tools like Xerox Digital Alternatives for easier document management, sometimes in combination with industry tools like DocuSign for electronic signatures. Bringing personal productivity solutions like these into the finance function is one of the many ways Xerox helps companies with the print-to-digital transformation.

Craig Albright

How do financial processes differ from other business processes?
Financial processes are typically time-critical and connected. Monthly financial close process, for example, has elements that must be completed on specific workdays to enable other elements to continue.

Of course, there’s the need for accuracy, confidentiality and increased security. This is foundational — to have strong controls throughout the process. There’s also the need for effective data mining, transparency and the ability to perform “what if” scenarios — the value-add of finance.

What advantages can process automation bring to financial organizations?
The advantages of finance process automation are:

  • First and foremost — productivity and real cost savings that drop to the bottom line.
  • Second, automation brings better access to data and data analysis to help guide the business to making better decisions.
  • Finally, automation brings stronger controls through the opportunity to monitor data, use analytics to see variances and drive focus.

In your opinion, how are financial organizations doing when it comes to reducing paper-based processes and replacing them with automation?
I think in many ways we are still scratching the surface of what can be done in moving from paper to paperless environments. We have seen some great software solutions get introduced over the past decade, but most companies still operate in a very manual way.

A good way to see where you stand is to run a workflow assessment and see exactly where labor and documents are concentrated. Some assessments only take a few days. Then follow that up with exploratory sessions to identify process specific solutions to transform how the work gets done.

What holds financial organizations back when it comes to process automation?
The most common issue I see holding organizations back from process automation is in not recognizing just how much labor or paperwork is still involved in the financial process. If a process has been moved off shore, it is especially easy to lose track of how it’s performing, and where there may be real opportunities for workflow solutions. This is where a fact-based assessment is most valuable.

What advice do you have for the financial executive who recognizes the need for digital transformation in his area of the business, but doesn’t know where to start?
My experience has been that it is best to start by getting a grip on the current environment – what processes are in play, how are these processes performing relative to benchmarks and where are these processes most labor and document intensive?

What processes should they target first for automation?
In the spirit of not re-inventing the wheel, it might be good to target first the transaction processes. There are some great solutions available, including from Xerox, to help streamline processes like Accounts Payable or Compliance Management.

Can you share any personal experiences with financial process automation?
As CFO for Xerox Europe during the Eurozone Crisis, our business was under intense pressure to drive real cost productivity, while continuing to strengthen our control environment and manage cash flow. I led a financial transformation program for a finance group of hundreds of professionals that set out to reduce our costs dramatically.

I started by laying out the case for change. We needed to be more efficient, so that we could compete effectively in the marketplace. I assembled a team to help me build the fact base of our financial processes, our current state position and our target operating model.

One example of automating our process was in using automation to prioritize cash collections, and there were many opportunities to continue to explore. By the end of the first two years, we had reduced costs by 20-25 percent and set the course for years of continuous productivity.

What are financial organizations looking for in terms of solutions and partners?
Financial leaders want a solution that points to finding new productivity and real savings, and they want someone to help to implement, with a low cost of investment to get to payback faster. We want solutions that improve, control and strengthen financial operations though data and transparency.
We want proof points to see that it works, that the solution isn’t untested and completely new.

How would you start process transformation in Finance?
As I mentioned, I’ve actually done that in my career, and my advice would to set it up as a program and not a one-off effort. We put a team around it and made a more structured, project-type approach. It’s also got to be fact-based. If I wanted to find opportunities, I would go to the process leader – whoever is running your process, like AP. for example. Focus on bite-size pieces that can demonstrate success.

It also helps to just start talking about it. Pick up phone and call someone you trust. Call me if you want. (Note to readers: if you’d like to take Craig up on his offer, drop us a line in the comments section.)

Any other thoughts?
Financial  workflow automation is a journey. Make sure you find good partners and good advisors to help explore the many opportunities that exist. Think about Xerox for the expertise we can bring in helping to improve the flow of work in your business.