December 6, 2023


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How Smart Digital Workflows Are Transforming Corporate Finance Functions

By Jeff Koyen

When it comes to payments and other enterprise finance functions, seemingly simple processes can mutate over time into complicated entanglements that cause disproportionate amounts of friction.

Many of these issues boil down to one thing, says Ian Ashby, principal strategist for customer service at ServiceNow: “Payment processing is very manual-heavy and, because of that, there’s a lot of rework [and] swivel chair work.”

Consider the most obvious payment processors: banks. Even today, Ashby explains, bank workflows can include several steps and multiple players relying on spreadsheets, emails and hardcopy paperwork that requires inked signatures. 

The solution, Ashby says, is to bring more automation to the finance function.

“Anything that you can do to automate those steps and make them visible,” he says, “that’s a better experience.”

To understand why financial executives and other corporate leaders should automate more of their finance functions, Ashby offers three concrete benefits that can be realized quickly.

Save Time And Money

In addition to removing manual tasks, automation reduces duplicate work, which saves companies time and money.

“It’s hard dollars,” Ashby says, simply.

A large bank recently used digital workflows running on the Now Platform to address two major pain points. When a customer makes a payment but provides the wrong sort code or account number, the bank must take steps to recover the money and issue the appropriate credits. Similarly, during the bank’s overnight batch processing of the day’s transactions, any errors are put aside for examination the next morning.  

Both instances, Ashby says, were highly manual and very complex processes. They were also solvable through automation built on smart digital workflows.

“Our digital workflow platform does a much better job of integrating the core banking systems,” Ashby says. “As an outcome, the manual steps went from 16 down to two. Costs have gone down by 60%. We’re talking about millions of dollars in cost savings.”

Modernize Legacy Systems

In large organizations with deeply entrenched processes built on legacy software and bespoke platforms, the prospect of digital transformation can be intimidating. Often, this apprehension is based on the assumption that, to transform effectively, existing systems must be replaced entirely.

This isn’t necessarily the case.

“A core banking system is perhaps the best example,” Ashby says. “We don’t want to touch that. No one knows how to even touch it, even if they wanted to. So how do you work through that?”

The answer: By rooting your digital transformation in smart, digital workflows.

“The fundamental thing about legacy systems is, they don’t work all the way through. And when things change, they get bolted on. They’re not fully integrated.” Ashby says. “You end up with a very convoluted, complex process that has multiple touchpoints.”

Done right, automation doesn’t need to replace untouchable core functions. Instead it solves the problems that surround them. 

“Automation [eliminates] all the different steps, systems, processes and spreadsheets,” Ashby says. “That time gets freed up for more value-added activity.”

Enable Consumer-Grade Corporate Experiences 

Less than 10 years ago, online shopping wasn’t without its snags. Every e-tailer, for example, had its own clunky system for managing credit card payments. Soon enough, thanks to standardized back-end functions, the online checkout process became almost universally simple.

We now expect the same conveniences everywhere else. Only one environment has failed to keep pace: the enterprise.

“In your day-to-day work, you’ve got 17 streams, 57 log-ins and if you don’t type in all-caps, something doesn’t work,” Ashby says. “You don’t have a mobile app, and if you work from home, you have to go through a VPN with 73 different security checks. Why is it so difficult?”

The long-awaited consumerization of enterprise tech is finally underway in corporate finance. Automation, built on smart digital workflows, is bringing a seamless, consumer-like experience to the enterprise workplace. The tools that created best-in-class consumer experiences are now also transforming the B2B space.

How To Get Started

For executives who have come to understand the importance—and benefits—of automating their finance functions, Ashby suggests these three starting points.

1. Recruit Executive Evangelists

No matter how great the upside, it’s not enough to simply announce an upgrade and expect unanimous support. Before breaking the news, prepare your leadership team and recruit key change agents within your organization. 

“We’re talking about both technological and process change,” Ashby says. “But probably more than anything else, we’re talking about cultural change. Have someone who’s prepared for the difficult conversations that come with a change management agenda.”

2. Turn Apprehension Into Excitement

During any digital transformation, there will be resistance. With finance functions especially, there’s a tendency to push back with the classic, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

This is an opportunity to promote the benefits of automation to your employees.

“It’s actually about getting rid of the mundane, repetitive boring stuff, and enabling them to focus on the higher-value work,” Ashby says.

Seize The Moment 

Even before the pandemic, many companies were starting to deliver touchless, self-serve consumer experiences. The same is true for internal processes: Many employees would prefer to solve their own problems through self-service portals, rather than take up their colleagues’ valuable time.

Embrace this trend, says Ashby, and take action now.

“Automation gives [employees] easier access through different channels, particularly digital channels and self-service,” he says. This yields end-to-end visibility, tracking and communication.