When the coronavirus pandemic descended and upended the ways in which business is done, no process or department escaped unscathed. For Wipro Limited, that included closing the books on our fiscal year while stationed in hundreds of remote locations.
It was quite the undertaking, but we’re a stronger organization for having to orchestrate it. If your enterprise doesn’t have the capability to use AI in accounting, now is the perfect time to change that.
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A Marathon Becomes a Sprint
Social-distancing measures and other health-related guidelines started rolling out in mid-March, and it quickly became apparent that we needed to switch to remote work immediately. The timing was awful — India’s fiscal year closed on March 31. We had roughly 15 days to come up with the process of turning a tightly controlled, completely internal application into one we could accomplish remotely.
Normally, closing the books is a yearlong effort for our 120-member core finance and accounting team. One year in advance, they’re booking the offices and meeting rooms so they can work together and methodically wrap up the fiscal calendar.
To ease the burden on our newly remote team, we opened a 24-hour help line so anyone could get assistance or guidance at any time, and we laid out each detailed step in advance so that everyone knew the process. Imagine this process occurring in an organization that has 180,000 employees servicing customers in as many as 55 countries. It could have easily gone sideways, but it turned into a lesson on agile finance and accounting practices supported by digital technologies.
Coordinating such a massive effort — dozens of teams with more than 800 remote finance employees — required time and tools we simply didn’t have. Twice daily calls with teams helped pinpoint where the gaps existed and where hiccups could occur. For instance, there is always a preparer and a reviewer in financial reporting. Remote preparation was doable thanks to VPNs, but the challenge we anticipated was how someone could perform the review in near real time.
We started using platforms such as Microsoft Teams in those 15 days to see whether we could effectively review each other’s work: People could share screens, connect audio, and perform other necessary duties. Those "drills" became part of the pre-planning exercise.
AI And Automation In Finance And Accounting
Adopting automation in finance and accounting processes made a huge impact. We relied on the enablement of artificial intelligence and cloud-enabled capabilities, such as invoicing and booking with intelligent process automation — a mechanical process of where you see milestones completed for a customer, then match it to the resources and time used. That was completely automated through our AI and automation platform, HOLMES.
Other automated steps that revolutionized our process included:
- The invoicing/booking team used automation to complete their first step of activities, enabling error-free invoice generation with minimum human intervention.
- Automating general ledger feeds coming from various sub-ledgers helped to close those steps ahead of time, these used AI technologies like natural language processing to reconcile various line items using accounting ontology.
- The aggregation of data and last-minute modifications were completed ahead of time by the controllership team using AI-driven “sensitivity analysis.” This enabled the financial planning and analysis team to have more time to analyze the data and run various scenarios.
- The AI-based revenue-forecasting tool was of immense value as it was able to provide multiple scenarios with inputs from various industrial forums. This tool, enacted three quarters ago, is now predicting with 99.5% accuracy.
It was exhausting, but we effectively turned a marathon into a sprint thanks to the right combination of culture, collaboration, and automation. Thankfully, AI technologies and other automation tools that exist today enable companies of all sizes to pull off nearly everything remotely, including such labor-intensive processes like closing a fiscal year.
Why CFOs Should Automate Finance and Accounting Now
Still not convinced? Here are three reasons why CFOs should prioritize intelligent process automation in accounting — regardless of whether we ever experience anything like COVID-19 again.
1. The CFO is the soul of the organization. As the one in control of the purse strings, CFOs declare how the performance of the enterprise is reflected in numbers being reported. The CFO shapes the desired outcome by recommending the next best actions. If he or she isn’t up to speed on automation’s capabilities in accounting, the company suffers.
According to a recent Genpact survey of CFOs, a meager 13% of financial executives are utilizing automation or analytics to improve processes. Less than half of those surveyed wanted to be held accountable for safeguarding the company’s data. Those are telling statistics. Our CFO was admittedly cautious and even a bit skeptical of automation benefits. In the past quarter, however, AI has provided us with phenomenal accuracy. Our CFO is now better equipped, and companywide confidence in the power of AI and automation continues to grow. It’s hard to argue against updated processes that are faster and more accurate than ever.
2. Accounting automation ensures your processes grow with the industry. There’s a reason why the future of AI and automation in the workforce is getting as much attention. Real-time predictive analytics increase decision-making confidence and decrease the time spent on a problem. These predictive tools offer more accuracy because they eliminate manual errors made by employees and because they free up the accounting and finance teams to put insights to work in the company.
CFOs can better understand which markets, channels, or partnerships to invest in when they utilize advanced, outcome-shaping AI, which helps the bottom line. Because AI can effectively teach itself, it is always on the cutting edge of innovation. Imagine the competitive advantages that blossom as a result.
3. AI uncovers previously unknown comparisons and scenarios. Automation allows for the inputting of external data sources to create comparisons and scenarios, but the aforementioned Genpact survey shows that few CFOs (and finance and analysis departments) have been able to successfully connect their tech to other departments across the business, with clients, or the supply chain.
Think of the possibilities in AI-driven finance and accounting systems. Cumbersome spreadsheets can be done by machine, freeing up valuable hours for employees to focus on higher-minded tasks. In that way, automation benefits can extend to saving time and preventing errors. Wouldn’t you rather your bright accounting minds perform more insightful work, like weighing in on mergers and acquisitions, while the automation does the monotonous tasks of cost analysis?
When COVID-19 changed the game overnight, we were unsettled and unsure. Could we publish on time? Could we close the year from home? AI in finance and accounting helped answer both questions affirmatively. In the end, we learned a most valuable lesson: AI-driven automation technologies in every step of the value chain improves cycle time, provides more time for analysis, and gives the financial-planning team better opportunities to present various options to management.
About The Authors
Sanjay Nambiar is vice president and head of Wipro’s AI & Automation Ecosystem, where he’s responsible for building AI partnerships, formulating go-to-market strategies, and driving service delivery for enterprise clients. With over two decades of experience in client relationship management and business development roles, Sanjay specializes in shaping new offerings and driving business outcomes across multiple verticals including retail, consumer goods, financial services, and telecom.
Rahul Deshpande is a practice head for AI for business solutions at Wipro Digital and an AI evangelist for corporate functions and core business areas. Rahul has extensive experience in manufacturing and financial verticals