To answer these questions and more, we spoke with two automation experts – Jotham Ty, the founder and CEO of Gappify, a provider of automation software for corporate accounting teams and Lesley Mast, CPA, who is leading the adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) for her firm at Rea & Associates in Wooster, Ohio.
Participants were enthusiastic and inquisitive during our 20-minute LinkedIn Live event, How CPA firms can get started with automation. After the event, Ty and Mast provided additional answers to questions.
What’s the difference between RPA and automation?
Ty: People use the terms automation and RPA (robotic process automation) interchangeably, but that isn’t always correct. Lots of automation types – like RPA – fall under automation. Some RPA software vendors are expanding into intelligent bots, and those bots fall under Artificial Intelligence (AI), a more complex form of automation. RPA is considered a stepping-stone toward AI. There are many types of automation, but RPA is the most popular today.
What processes can be automated? Do you have specific examples you can share?
Mast: CPAs can delegate many mundane, time-consuming tasks to a bot, such as data entry, invoicing, or even starting a tax return. Our firm uses a bot to pull clients’ monthly bank statements, which then saves them to a drive on a server for us to use. We’re saving 10 to 15 minutes for each statement we previously pulled manually, saving us several hours per month.
Ty: You can use automation in AP and AR vouchering. One of our clients uses their bots for cash collections. The company’s CEO said implementing RPA has increased collections by 60%. Addressing this sort of operational task with automation is a common first step.
What are bots? And one participant asked, “Are bots going to take my job?”
Ty: A bot is a type of software that can automate repetitive, low-value tasks that humans do. Bots are not about taking humans’ jobs. They perform the boring tasks so that people can focus on work that requires strategic thinking.
Mast: Think of bots as an assistant who handles those mundane tasks for you.
What are the benefits of using automation?
Mast: RPA takes away the time wasters and makes you available for more valuable projects. Our staff has more time to spend on clients’ reports and other deep-thinking work that we enjoy. Firms that implement RPA can focus on things only humans can do, like developing strategy, solving problems and building client relationships.
Bots reduce human error in audits by accurately copying data across different files. They can also run calculations to determine financial statement accuracy, internal consistency and tie-outs of prior-year amounts.
What kind of investment is needed? Is RPA just for large firms?
Mast: Automation is a hot topic in our field, so CPAs need to first invest in themselves. I know the AICPA is offering the Digital Mindset Pack (free to members until the end of the year) and there’s an automation module in the pack. That’s a great place to start.
The costs vary, depending on what your firm wants. It’s like deciding what type of car you’ll buy: There are many options. We interviewed vendors who offered our firm two options. One would train our staff in programming. The second option proposed that our vendor handle the bot programming for us. We chose the long-term, costlier investment and trained our people to do the programming. Honestly, programming has been challenging and exciting, but I’m adding skills to my toolbox.
Ty: There’s this misconception that RPA is only for large firms or organizations. Low-cost, low-code solutions exist for a sole proprietor or small business. Don’t let the cost of RPA prohibit you from exploring the possibility.
How do you measure the success of an RPA project? What criteria do you evaluate?
Ty: The primary measure for quantifying success is ROI or cost savings, but many organizations are excited about improvements in key business metrics. For example, autonomous bots and workflow solutions can accelerate cash collections. The benefit of cash flexibility from improved customer collections is harder to quantify, but just as critical to business success.
More info on automation
If you want to learn more about RPA, watch our 20-minute LinkedIn Live event. To read more about automation, check out this experiential brochure with sections tailored to public accountants and management accountants.