Some call artificial intelligence the fourth industrial revolution — and it fascinates us, raises many questions, excites us, even scares us a little. (I’m still not sure I want to be on the same roads as self-driving cars!) But there is no denying that AI makes our daily lives so much easier than it was a few years ago, and much more than we imagined.
When we talk about AI, we immediately think about what we use every day, such as virtual assistants or chatbots (e.g., Siri or Cortana), smartphones that identify us through fingerprint or facial recognition, cars that are able to detect pedestrians and to park themselves (often better than humans do). We also think about computers that recognize and analyze documents automatically.
AI is also widely present in the business environment. There is evidence of this in:
- HR departments that more efficiently optimize a selection process;
- Quality assurance departments anticipating and even preventing problems before they may occur; and,
- Marketers who predict customers’ needs and optimize interactions between brands and consumers.
And AI has made its way into finance, and specifically, accounting departments. As an accounting professional, you may wonder how these technologies impact finance functions and workflows, what transformations can be predicted, and how this technology will shape tomorrow’s finance department.
Recent industry reports have explored the positive implications of AI on accounting teams, and confirm that AI and associated natural language interfaces have the potential to change the way that the finance and accounting teams and other stakeholders interact with data. In fact, finance leaders play a key role in bringing emerging technologies such as AI to business.
A case study in AP
The concept of automating accounts payable processes first surfaced about 20 years ago. While earlier solutions had nothing to do with current approaches, especially in terms of performance and reliability, they did have the same objective: Automate a tedious and repetitive process to make AP personnel's lives easier, and optimize the efficiency of finance processes.
Before AI, accounting teams manually created and processed invoices, purchase orders, or delivery orders on paper documents. Those documents were then manually entered in computer systems, coded, and finally transmitted to the managers for approval and payment. Today, thanks to AI, there are no more manual processes! The AP workflow process is automated by software that analyzes, recognizes, directs, and exports data into a company’s ERP/financial system. Before automating the AP workflow, suppliers had little to no insight into payment timing details; now, they have full access to this information in real time.
The use of AI in AP solutions makes a significant positive impact on the finance department. The maturity, reliability and industrialization of the intelligent AP automation solutions of today are leveraging AI to create business models that are now accessible to the small and midsized markets, and which were previously only available to enterprise firms. In addition,
- Algorithms have become more and more reliable, flexible, and adaptable, permitting solutions to automatically manage documents with variable structure, such as invoices. As a result, data is automatically recognized in an exhaustive and reliable way, with no prior configuration.
- Cloud solutions are available to millions of users, which results in constant technological enhancements. This contrasts to older on-premise solutions where usage was limited.
- The self-learning — machine learning — capabilities of cloud-based software solutions are constantly improving. These solutions essentially “learn” from their mistakes and do not make them again once humans correct them.
And the use of AI in financial and accounting systems is leading to real profits. 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 optical recognition technology; and,
- Denote payment deadlines, approval workflows, and the approvers.
“What used to take weeks now only takes about two and a half days,” said Bryan Schmidt, controller for Unite Here Health, and a cloud AP automation user. “The improvements are due to capturing, automatically coding and storing invoices instead of handling paper or sending around PDF files. The system observes and learns from clerks’ keystrokes, continuously improves GL coding, and reduces errors.”
Finance teams will notice a positive transition from a task-driven approach to one of empowerment in which systems driven by AI are now in charge of low-value repetitive tasks — data entry, verifications, referrals, and fraud detection — and employees are freed to produce real added value with time for analysis, strategy, creative thinking, and decision-making.
In view of the spectacular progress of AI, this new world will be familiar to you long before a self-driving mail truck drops the last paper invoices in your office.