What role can robots play in a rather traditional business field like accountancy?
It's a question the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) has been wrestling with - trying to figure out whether what it describes as robotic process automation (RPA) will prove to be a reality or remain just "a very clever marketing tool".
From an accountant's point of view, of course, one of the key questions is: what are the chances of a robot being clever enough to do my job, but a report from the association also considers the much wider question of which jobs around an organisation could be improved, replaced or eliminated altogether through RPA.
It notes: "Finance leaders obsess about transformation levers, [and except for] the requisite investment in an expensive ERP platform, have typically leaned heavily on the equation of people and process... The technology component has mainly been limited to communication widgets that facilitate workflow and e-invoicing."
No matter that robots are "actually software tools run in a data centre working through a user interface that have, for the most part, been around for some time" the report continues, "any discussion of robots in the finance function is a proxy for the future of the finance organisation, and finance careers".
And a big issue, the report points out, is the relative scarcity of solid cases studies of successful implementations of robotics outside of very large companies and specific areas like the car industry.
As Deloitte's Peter Moller points out in the report: "At the moment, all the hype on the websites hasn't been supported with real case studies saying this organisation had 300 people in a finance shared service centre sitting in the UK or India and has eliminated 40 people because they automated process and driven efficiencies. I don't believe we have seen that yet".
To help accountants to consider the issue, the association has come up with a set of guidelines.
Price rationally Some think that the economic business case is not compelling enough to move from "a labour arbitrage model", the guidelines say, but introducing robots is not just about cutting costs. "Don't price the software as a lower cost FTE," it says, instead "serve up a cost proposition that demonstrates the cost-benefit of total cost of ownership".
Allow clients to "try then buy" Again this may appear like simple common sense, but the association points out that "nothing sells like proof of concept". Let the necessary people - "finance transformers" as the ACCA puts it - "play with the technology long enough to sell themselves on the benefits and ease of use".
Infuse IP While some may think that "anyone with a manual and some process knowledge" can do this, it points out, in reality that it's not good enough. "The sell needs to be around domain-rich, transformative solutions" the report says.
Be honest There is a risk that "providers have a tendency to wave RPA in front of finance transformers like a shiny new toy" during the proposal process so that they can "get into the game, then revert to the old labour arbitrage value proposition". In a word, don't.
Don't over-scope and over-price Some consultants, trying to replace significant multi-million dollar ERP implementation contracts may be looking at RPA implementation as the next cash cow. Again, one word, don't.
As another co-author, Jamie Lyon puts it, in the implementation of robots there needs to be far more clarity around the proposition for finance beyond headcount reduction. Yes, the numbers seem appealing, but finance directors are unclear about the hard benefits of robotics over and above its cost-efficiency when compared to employees."
As the report makes clear, while many may be attracted to them by the prospect of shedding expensive labour the reality is likely to be very different.
The report, The robots are coming? Implications for Finance Shared Services, can be found here.