Read our interview below and sign up here for our live Q&A on Automated Accounts Payable Solutions
Hi Malcolm, thanks for joining the Restore Digital Web Team for a quick interview. For our readers, could you start with a quick overview of yourself, your career history and how you got to be Restore's automation and AI consultant?
My working life started in South Africa, where I started within telecommunications engineering. Here I was a high-level support specialist, rolling out analogue to digital national network teleco upgrades. Then I ventured into intelligent networks and software application development within teleco, before joining Nokia South Africa in Product Marketing for switch and intelligent network solutions - moving from technical to a consultancy role.
In 2000 I moved to the UK and provided business solutions to T-Mobile (picture messaging etc) before joining BT and their mobility business transformation projects. Here I helped organisations within finance, insurance, government and healthcare to transform and add real value to the way they work.
Then I joined a small start-up venture, which provided information management solutions, particularly business intelligence and predictive analytics driving process optimisation.
It was then only natural to embrace intelligent automation at Kofax and then ProcessFlows and now with Restore, understanding the end-to-end challenges and current business processes and transforming the way people, processes and technology can benefit from discovered and managed transformation.
It sounds like you are the perfect person for today's interview - which is automated accounts payable solutions! It's quite a mature solution, being one of the first areas which had an automated offering. However, many of the organisations which approach Restore do so because they have an old automated AP solution and it's just not delivering. Have you seen this problem when you've visited organisations throughout your career, and why do you think the problem exists?
I believe if you dig deeper, you'll find this problem exists for many business processes in the past - not just Accounts Payable - and the bit that concerns me the most is that there is a real danger this will continue to exist as lessons aren't always being learnt and actioned suppliers.
Accounts Payable processes have, like others, gone through an evolution of requirements, which has resulted with solution vs the business needs being "out of sync". The touch points of an AP solution can involve:
- Initial receipt
- Content classification and verification
- Intervention/approval management
- CRM/ERP evolution
- Ongoing management information requests
- Regulation and compliance etc.
All these touchpoints contribute to the challenges of creating an automated solution and ensuring the value is maintained.
So, what do you think is the main reason an automated solution, like accounts payable, fails to deliver the value anticipated?
That's an interesting question, and I could talk about this for hours! However, one of the key aspects is not being realistic. You need to approach the project from three key aspects: people, process and technology.
Triangles are strong structures, but if one side is "weak" it collapses very easily. Hence, projects need to focus on all three aspects:
People: Project stakeholders involve every team that engages with the process, no matter the degree. Business Users have first-hand experience with respect to current process pain and is key to offering advice to making the revised process a success. Unfortunately, some projects are driven from an infrastructure perspective - which needs to be considered due to security and compliance etc, but also essential is the user acceptance testing, spotting any significant gaps that will prevent real value.
Process: Automating the current process like for like, often just enables a disaster to be reached in a timelier manner! In my career I have seen many ancient processes that have been established since time began and never changed as "that's the way we work", despite everything else changing around the process. But then on the flip side I have visited organisations with first class process optimisation, but this process feeds into an environment that replies on envelopes and paper. It is critical to review processes as they currently are, where they need to be, and mapping a transformation path to deliver the value.
Technology: Where to start and not waffle on for hours! You have so many options:
- On premise
- Production systems
- Test and develop
- EDM, to name but a few!
In some cases, single malt whiskey fits the bill, and other times a blend is preferred. In my experience if you can define the process and engage the right stakeholders, then technology should embrace these requirements. This includes integration into the legacy environment. In an Accounts Payable world - paper is still a key element and engaging with partners that understand and appreciate this paper trail exists would really help.
We see this often, the denial that paper will be generated once an automated solution is in place. Why do people still press print?
Let's be honest, Restore is a company talking about the paperless revolution, and for the foreseeable future paper is still going to be part of how an organisation operates. Being completely paperless is pretty much nonsense. Being paper lite, or being on a paperless journey are the ways organisations are moving, but paper free? Nonsense!
Businesses are driving the automation transformation, but that doesn't mean the environment they work in have the same passion. Engagement will be multi-faceted. I would suggest my previous point contributes greatly to why people still press print within automated solutions. Get the technology, process and people wrong, then all you'll have is an automated solution working in tangent with an unofficial paper one.
I have worked with organisations creating the most amazing digital inbound mailroom, to reduce paper coming into it. However, they still have a print based outbound mailroom, generating paper for others!
Accounts Payable, as you guys said, is a mature process within automation, yet how often are electronic invoices printed off and stored, as well? It's not to say the process is broken, but how do you create a process that limits the "press print" habit?
So, do you think paper post will stop being generated over the next five or ten years, or do you think solutions like digital mailrooms will just be more prevalent as they try and stop some of the paper from entering an organisation?
Paper isn't going to stop entering organisations. It will reduce, but I don't expect to see it stop in my life time.
The definition of "digital mailroom" keeps evolving, and even a reduction in paper won't stop the solution existing in some form. Digital mailrooms turn paper into electronic data, and often pull this information into a standard form, along with emails etc. The bit which makes digital mailrooms a long-term solution is rather than turning paper post into PDFs - which are arguably digital paper - you start pulling data out of the original and push it automatically through databases and workflows.
What do you think makes people resistant to change, and what are your tips for overcoming these blockers?
The biggest factor I've seen is when an organisation makes a big announcement like "XXXX" is coming tomorrow" and any sort of communication and knowledge transfer prior this announcement has been limited, therefore buy-in is limited. Everyone wants change, but they mean others to change, not themselves! Change is successful when properly managed. I go back to my beloved triangle - don't forget the people!
Another common blocker is process revision. Make sure key stakeholders have a say in what you are creating. I'm not suggesting a Brexit style committee but getting that buy-in and knowledge from people from all touch points is essential.
What are your tips for ensuring the new process will work once rolled out?
There is always a reason why change has taken place, so be clear on it, and have clear measurements of success. Therefore, if things don't work, you can tweak and amend and get yourself back on track.
Get feedback from the people using the new process, and don't be afraid of it. Change is never liked at first, so the skill is knowing which grumbles will fade and which are relevant and need actioning.
And get your organisation to recognise synergies. Is there another database or system that feeds into your Accounts Payable one, that can benefit from automation later?
Some organisations ring us feeling stuck that they've invested in expensive technology or software and now, for example, their accounts database won't talk to their CRM database. Is there a way of making these legacy systems interoperable?
Yes, in a word. It's completely understandable that where investments have been made, you need to utilise existing infrastructure and technology where possible. If that investment has simply reached its end of life or is no longer supported, then unfortunately it may not be possible or advisable to continue. But that, aside, existing infrastructure isn't prohibitive to workflow process change.
AI is a great way to make different systems talk to each other, but even rules based structured repetitive activities between systems can be deployed which can protect current investment while leveraging new solutions.
Thank you so much for your time Malcolm. You've given us a great insight, but also left us with even more questions. The more you learn, the less you realise you know!
If you have a question for Malcolm, then he's live answering questions on Automated Accounts Payable Solutions from 10:30am on the 22nd May. Just sign up here to receive the information needed to join the live chat.