A close encounter of the fourth kind: AP automation

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It remains true that automating processes within a firm that has long followed a tried-and-true manual process can be met with fear. It’s no one’s fault: sometimes even simple automation means a big change in how an accountant spends their time, and any change is scary.

But perhaps we can take a lesson from Hollywood — “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a classic movie and well-known by most (even those who aren’t quite old enough to remember when it first came out or saw it on the big screen). But for those who aren’t familiar with the film, here’s a brief synopsis: the movie involves two parallel story lines, one about a group of research scientists from a variety of backgrounds who are investigating the strange appearance of items in remote locations, primarily desert regions, and using music to communicate back and forth with unknown beings. The other involves an unrelated man and woman in the small town of Muncie, Indiana — Roy Neary, an electric company lineman and family man, and Jillian Guiler, a single mom — who each have a strange encounter with an unidentified object that they can’t explain. The story progresses from there towards a meet-up with actual beings from outer space at the end — the close encounter.

There are a few parallels we can draw between the movie and automated invoice and payment processing (AP) systems. Think that’s a stretch? Let’s see!

Fear of the unknown

Like Roy and Jillian in the movie, and like many of us, there is a natural human tendency to fear, or at least be apprehensive, of the unknown. This can be especially true in the workplace. For accounts payable professionals who are used to manually processing paper invoices — even with all the tedium that goes along with it — moving towards a completely automated process can be a little scary. “Will I be able to learn the technology?” “How do I look for a document in the system?” “Is a software system that can process invoices from beginning to end going to replace my job?”

This is perfectly understandable. And there are certainly plenty of research and industry reports that suggest automation technology might indeed replace some of the more repetitive tasks, and there a number of reports that support the idea that automation can be a smart tool that will actually help, not replace, the AP function. I believe in the latter.

When an AP professional is no longer spending long hours examining and manually entering piles of purchasing orders, receipts and invoices, what might that person be doing instead? As machines increasingly take over repetitive and time-consuming tasks, the AP clerk will more frequently ask, “What can I do that a machine cannot? In what creative new ways can I add value to my organization?” And that’s where the automation process ceases to be frightening and becomes exciting.

The cloud

In many movies about outer space, both classic and current, the unknown flying objects or beings come down from out of the clouds. Sometimes it’s spooky, sometimes it’s dramatic. With cloud-based AP automation technology, the cloud provides many advantages for small- to mid-sized firms automating their invoice processing and payment workflow:

  • Security: When documents are stored in the cloud, only users with a username and password can access them. Unlike paper documents that are out in the open on someone’s desk or floating around the office or between locations until the approving manager signs off, sensitive data is safe and secure.
  • Accessibility: How often have you spent time trying to find one or more invoices, either on your desk, someone else’s desk or in a filing cabinet? Organized in a cloud-based platform, documents can be found with a couple of keywords and a click, as fast as being beamed up (a different space movie reference!)
  • Insight: According to many industry reports, finance and accounting leaders struggle with knowing the status of payables. When documents move through the workflow in a cloud-based AP automation platform, there is complete visibility into the AP workflow. And seeing is believing!

Technological superiority

Many of today’s AP automation solutions leverage smart technologies like OCR (optical character recognition), machine learning, and RPA (robotics process automation) powered by AI, making a significant positive impact on accounting departments. AI-driven AP automation solutions are able to learn as fast and as accurately as an experienced human to:

  • Identify and interact with suppliers;
  • Automatically intake, code, process and route invoices, using OCR; and
  • Denote payment deadlines, approval workflows, and the approvers.

So the next time you have a close encounter of a third kind with a being from outer space that says “take me to your leader,” make it a close encounter of the fourth kind and introduce it to your cloud-based AP automation system. They’ll become fast friends!

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