The Top 2 Barriers Keeping Finance Teams from Adopting Automation–And How to Overcome Them

To overcome hurdles to automation, start small
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CFOs see automating manual tasks as a top priority, but these projects are often hampered by their sweeping scale and complexity. Here's how to overcome the hurdles and get started.

Automating manual tasks can increase employee engagement and retention, minimize errors, and strengthen the ways budget and financial forecasting tie into overall business strategy. The finance function wants to transform itself with automation. U.S. Bank’s most recent CFO Insights Report found that deploying such technology within the finance function has become a top priority for CFOs.

What is hindering automation adoption?

But according to the same CFO Insights Report, digital transformation is hindered by a number of challenges.

Forty percent of finance leaders identify lack of an enterprise-wide digital transformation strategyas the top barrier, compared with 24 percent in 2021.

Digital transformation has become more complex and increasingly spans multiple business functions. CFOs must formulate or support a robust collaborative strategy that coordinates different leaders and functions, making it feel like an insurmountable task.

Reluctance and resistance to change is also a top transformation barrier. Finance leaders have to increase their change management initiatives so that employees buy into digital transformation initiatives.

Embrace a pilot model to sidestep automation blockers

Faced with these imposing challenges, finance teams may struggle to kickstart their digital transformation. Instead, starting small with a controlled pilot is imperative.

According to Dominic Venturo, chief digital officer and senior executive vice president at U.S. Bank, “One of the best practices we’ve learned is to identify an objective that is relatively easy to execute and achieve. Pick something that is small, well understood and easy to define. You won’t get it right the first time, so start with something that you can iterate on. Success breeds success and you will then start to build momentum. You need to scale from success.”

Where to spearhead finance automation projects

As businesses adapt to “forever remote” workforces, the burden placed on finance and accounting teams has doubled. Compound that with the fact that managing expenses and travel budgets has been a process deeply rooted in spreadsheets, mountains of receipts and chasing down managers to approve expense reports.

Spend management—including business travel, expenses and corporate card transactions—consists of a slew of manual processes and mind-numbing tasks just begging to be automated. If you’re interested in automating financial processes, this is the place to get started.

Tips for piloting a finance automation project

Here are six practical tips for piloting automation:

  • Target pain points: Start with quick but meaningful wins. Are there tasks that your team dreads doing on a monthly basis? What tedious processes consume hours of time? If approving expense reports or processing reimbursements turns into a fire drill every month, that’s a perfect opportunity for automation.
  • Get started with a basic model: Keep initial implementations simple. Ask vendors or colleagues if they have policy recommendations or a pre-populated reporting dashboard that you can launch with.
  • Layer on customizations: As tempting as it is to plan for every “what if” scenario, it’s faster to identify gaps and layer on customizations after your initial implementation. Get feedback, and layer in nuances that will take your automated task from basic to bespoke.
  • Measure improvements: Look at cost savings and time saved. Is your team saving even 10 hours a month for strategic initiatives?
  • Find new stakeholders: Automating tasks or processes that are wholly owned by the finance team are a much easier lift, but finance is a cross-functional responsibility. In a second or third project round, bring in additional stakeholders, such as automation that flags overspend to managers.
  • Expand: With proven ROI and growing stakeholders, expand to adjacent processes or tasks. Automated expense management approval flows may lead you to automate reimbursement processing, or dynamic budgeting may reveal that it’s time to adopt an intelligent reporting tool.

Automating manual tasks is a top priority for CFOs, but these projects are often hampered by their sweeping scale and complexity. The best strategy for overcoming the barriers to adoption is piloting a small automation project. With a controlled pilot focused on a finance process like automating travel and expense management, your team can feel immediate relief and ROI.

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