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Finance firms use 'bots' to sort data

By Nicole Norfleet Star Tribune

This article was published April 18, 2017 at 2:02 a.m.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Marna Ricker has her own personal robot.

While it doesn't shoot lasers or clean her Minneapolis office Roomba-style, her "bot" can do some of her digital data dirty work so she doesn't have to.

"I don't want to sit at my computer and do process type of work," said Ricker, the central region tax managing partner at Ernst & Young.

Accounting firms have recently employed the virtual bots in their offices as well as advised clients to use them as a faster, cheaper and often more accurate option to complete repetitive tasks.

Robotic process automation is the use of a software robot or "bot" that replicates the actions of a human to execute tasks across multiple computer systems. According to professional services organization Deloitte, a minute of work for a robot is equal to about 15 minutes of work for a human.

For example, a bot could scan an invoice in a PDF document attached to an email, save the data into an Excel spreadsheet, log into a Web system and enter the data to generate a report, all before emailing an employee to say the work is done.

Robotics is predicted to automate or eliminate up to 40 percent of transactional accounting work by 2020, a 2015 Accenture report found.

Bill Cline, the national advisory leader for digital labor at global audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG LLP, said robotics is the biggest inflection point of the industry since global sourcing.

"I think a lot of people know that physical robots are being used in factories, or even that [artificial intelligence] is being used in medical diagnoses, but I don't think many people understand how extensively software bots are being used to automate previously manual business processes and functions," he said.

Ernst & Young in the past 18 months has built an army of about 200 bots in the firm's tax practice operations that has resulted in saving several hundred thousand hours of process time annually. The firm, which also offers assurance, transaction and advisory services, uses bots for its own core business functions, including finance and performance management.

The bots can have accuracy rates as high as 99 percent and can reduce operating costs by 25 to 40 percent or more, Ricker said.

"They work 24/7. They are happy. They don't take vacation," Ricker said.

Bots can allow humans to focus on more complex tasks, she said. Ernst & Young is in its second full year of training staff on robotic process automation. Over the past year, the firm also has started to help their clients use robotic process automation in areas such as finance, procurement and human resources.

Eventually robotic software will be as freely used in accounting as Excel, Ricker said.

Besides time and cost savings, robotic process automation and other types of automation could have several other benefits.

Intelligent automation can provide greater accuracy, accountability and defensibility by logging every process step executed and data source used, Cline said. Furthermore, automation allows for larger amounts of information to be analyzed for audits, risk analysis, and predictive analytics instead of depending on a smaller sample size that has been the norm when done manually, he said.

The use of robotic process automation and other intelligent automation is also leading to a decline in offshore outsourcing for the array of tasks that can be replaced by digital workers, Cline said. In turn, that would also save companies money and give them more control.

KPMG has used various degrees of intelligent automation for more than three years. In the future, Cline predicts that the use of automation will become more sophisticated with advancements in natural language processing and artificial intelligence.

"Bots are getting smarter," Cline said. "The lines are blurring between those classes of automation. Now some of the newer bots can actually watch a human worker do work and learn through observation."

With all the talk of advancement, there has been speculation on whether digital robots could start to completely take the place of their human counterparts and pose a threat to the everyday accountant.

Cline acknowledged that the end result could be that it will take fewer people to do a task with the help of automation. But he said automation can also help open the door for companies to expand their services. In general, the clients that KPMG is helping with automation are trying to keep costs under control as they expand their capabilities, he said.

In some ways, robotics will create more jobs because it requires tech-savvy workers, he said. More firms will need employees who understand how automation works.

"There are not enough people in the market right now that know tax and technology," Ricker said.

John A. Knutson & Co., a smaller accounting firm outside the Twin Cities, doesn't have the automated tools that larger firms do, but Kyla Hansen, a director, said they will be useful.

"Right now, accountants coming out of college are high in demand," she said. "So it doesn't scare me at all to automate whatever we can to make best use of the workforce that we have because there is a shortage right now."

Business on 04/18/2017

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