The Accounts Payable Revenue Centre: Why automation is the route to AP agility

By Gary Simon, BSc, FCA, FBCS, CITP, Chief Executive of FSN & Leader of the Modern Finance Forum on LinkedIn

FSN’s 2020 research – The Future of Analytics in the Finance Function* – which is to be published soon, shows that the Accounts Payable (AP) process, or more broadly the Purchase-to-Pay (P2P) process, is under-served and under-exploited as a cash generator and valuable source of information and competitive advantage. It found that AP penetration across finance functions in companies of all sizes is just 15%, yet companies that have invested in specialised capability, exhibit better mastery of data (compared to those that haven’t) and more mature, insightful analytics.

It is these latter two aspects that are crucial to elevating the AP process from a transaction-oriented process into a cash generating engine. But before any of this can be achieved it is vital that the accounts payable process is standardised and automated using the latest digital technologies, since this establishes the baseline for process efficiency, staff mobility, organisational responsiveness, agility and productivity on which the higher level ideals depend.

The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the frailty of many accounts payable processes. Lack of investment in digital technologies and a heavy reliance on manual workarounds and spreadsheets has meant that many organisations were not prepared to reconfigure and quickly re-start their accounts payable process when personnel were forced to work from home. At the very moment that the need for agility was at its peak and some suppliers were struggling with own liquidity, many paying organisations stumbled, and supplier payments were delayed. 

Yet, AP process standardisation and automation are within the grasp of most organisations and have been for some time. Standardisation is a matter of policy, process and technology. Although most industries can generate electronic invoices, many suppliers still submit paper versions – for context, of the c.6 million invoices processed through Proactis’ technology annually, around 28% are paper. For less automated and agile AP functions, this puts a strain on their operations due to the manual processing required to get them into ERP systems ready for approval – which is why it is so important to have an agile AP model which can efficiently handle 100% of invoice formats and process them into a digital format.

Once invoices are in the system, specialised accounts payable solutions can take on, for example, the heavy lifting of invoice coding and invoice matching with goods received notes and purchase orders.  All of this, underpinned by collaborative technologies in the cloud, enables optimisation of workloads between different members of staff and the quick resolution of errant transactions that cannot be processed right first time. The approval and sequence of cash payments then becomes a vital tool in the effort to manage supplier relationships fairly, without compromising liquidity.
With the benefit of hindsight and with the exceptional Coronavirus experiences under our belts, organisations that have invested in modern, collaborative AP processes in the cloud, now have the choice about how they wish to deploy in the future.  Some may choose to go back to office-bound working while others may choose to support home-working or some hybrid position of the two.  But the crucial point is that the choice sits much more easily in those organisations that have invested in AP process standardisation and digital automation.

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