Rafael Casas: on RPA, the Future of Accounting Profession, Challenges of COVID-19 and the Importance of Being Adaptive

~ 12 minutes read

We are happy to announce the launch of Electroneek Thought Leader Blog Series, where we will introduce you with topflight experts from various business areas and their invaluable insights.

Our path-breaker is Rafael Casas, Senior Manager of the Sage Accountant Solutions team. 

Rafael has 15+ years of Finance and Accounting Consulting and advisory experience, building products, designing, and implementing complex, business-critical applications for Small, Medium, and Enterprise companies in North America, South America, Europe, and Africa.

During the conversation, Rafael shared his ideas on the future of the accounting profession, explained what makes RPA an indispensable part of any business enhancement, and unveiled the key factors that lead to success in such an ever-changing industry as business automation.

The buzzwords of machine learning and artificial intelligence have sparked concerns throughout the accounting profession. We see predictions on thousands of jobs being lost worldwide to automation. What are your thoughts about it? How do you see the future of the accounting profession in, let’s say, 5-10 years if automation continues bursting into our lives at a lightning-fast pace?

That is actually a misconception. I think that there won’t be that many jobs being taken over by robots. I guess what RPA is going to do is to allow for more empowerments for the individuals to get more time from doing that mundane, repetitive tasks that are for the most part are pretty rigid rule sets. It will allow them to give customers a better experience with more time or advisory skills involved that will enable them to serve their clients better.

Can you agree that as innovation is advancing the role of accountants is progressing as well?

Yes, a hundred percent. If you look at some other innovations that have occurred, for instance, a mobile phone, you would see that some of us in the past thought that it was going to take our jobs as well. But in fact, this technology is more about enhancing and empowering us to have our businesses and our social life on an advanced level. So it is just another step which allows us to be better business partners.

From your over 15 years of experience in this field, what developments can you consider crucial concerning the transformation of accounting profession functionality?

I have the opportunity to work with extremely large companies around the world, helping them to build RPA. And their needs in terms of business processes improvements are the same as the needs of small accounting firms or someone with a smaller business, i.e. the main issues for them are data integrity and data accuracy. 

Your reporting, your forecasting, and other significant processes are not going to be good unless you master data, and unless your data is clean. One of the crucial things is to make sure that there is proper workflow. It allows you to just have less junk in the system to clean up. That is extremely important. As if you don’t have a robust operating procedure in your business, and you are not able to utilize some sort of automation for those types of things, you’re always going to be struggling, it doesn’t matter what type of accounting systems or software you have. Your data is always going to be a problem.

Pandemic has become a call to action for many firms to take automated tools seriously. Sage has made meaningful steps forward to support the business during these tough times. What business industries did you find the most labor-intensive in terms of implementing automation processes?

I think the characterization of having RPA or automation involved (and I don’t’ think it’s really related to any type of business industries per se, but more to COVID-19) is that it allows businesses to still be able to do a lot of their functions, that they normally DO without having to have people in the office, whether it is onboarding new clients or taking care of the compliance and paperwork, or transactional data of clients. 

Automation not only helps a business or a firm continue to be business as usual, but it also allows them not to furlough any of their own employees and keep the businesses that they are serving, up and running. RPA offers a lot of value. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, as it is more about a brand perspective, business continuity perspective and keeping your employees employed.

”as opposed to just having transactional relationships, building a real business partner relationships is where I see the most significant benefit of an advisor role”.

What makes the role of the advisor so vital when it comes to such rapid business transformations?

When it comes to an advisor you need to keep in mind that his role is not just preparing for taxes or financials on a corporate or individual level, but is actually helping them understand and tell a story from the data, that’s existing.

More and more, the advisory side is really important, especially now during the COVID-19. Clients need more than anything in the business-partner relationship to determine, what is right for them, if they need any of those processes at all. There are firms that even before all any of this happened were the clients you just wanted to sit down with and listen to them, just talk about their business and their wishes and ideas. 

That’s really what brings the most value to the clients: just sitting down and understanding what the clients really want to do. And as opposed to just having transactional relationships, building a real business partner relationships is where I see the most significant benefit of an advisor role.

Perhaps you could share some real cases of RPA implementation in SAGE’s ecosystem?

From the Sage Perspective, the last thing we just recently did with Electroneek was that we built an RPA bot that helped quickly, easily and effectively onboard the clients’ chart of accounts. So it will not just bring in the chart of accounts, it will clean up the default charts of accounts that usually come with those new companies’ systems and then it will bring in a new natural chart of accounts from a new client. Typically, if you do that manually it can take quite a long time, about several hours. With bots it takes several minutes. So that in itself is a very simple use case that we worked on.

Also, there are inventory items processing. These are things that can be easily plugged in to your system incorrectly and then you’re going to have issues, where sometimes you are not even able to delete that information, which just forms the messiest datasets. We are working on several different, more sophisticated use cases that will let everyone know about within our Advisory Council for Sage business cloud accounting.

How do you usually explain the benefits of automating the accounting process to business owners? What doubts and concerns do you face most often?

The main question here to address is: “What this technology will allow you to do?” It will not only provide you with the automation itself. It will force you to really analyze your business and realistically improve your business from the ground up. This technology makes you evaluate where you can make better decisions in your business because you’d never want to throw in a bot or any type of innovation if you have a business, that’s not structurally sound, that’s not setup with standard operating procedures to work efficiently or have clear cut business procedures in every segment of your business. 

”RPA is just the vehicle, and you are a driver”.

So it allows you to clean your room and look at where you can improve upon and then once you’ve done that you can really understand where the bots are going to benefit you from your return on investments, where the technology is going to work for you. Then you can implement RPA. As RPA is just the vehicle, and you are a driver.

I think that the biggest benefit of automation is that it allows you to reevaluate your own business, your people and what they do. And that’s where you really have to spend the most time. A really simple example would be a bank fee automation. 

If you don’t spend the time on building really great rules for this process, all of the books and all of your accounting companies are probably not going to look very great and you will have a lot of work to do. But if you spend a lot of time on building up the really proper rule sets for your automation not only for now, but for five years from now, you will not only build a clean set of books, the financials, but it will also allow for a streamlining the more accurate reports next five-ten years, depending on your business. 

So would it be correct to say that before deciding on the automation you need to make some kind of internal audit?

Absolutely right. If you’re thinking about RPA you have to sit down and look. That is what consultants do: sitting with every single business, business segments within a business and listening to the clients, what works well, and what doesn’t, what can be automated or what clients like to be automated. And then determining all the business processes and deciding what of any of that makes sense to keep and what can be automated. And this will be a starting point.

My advice here would be: do not start with something sophisticated. Instead start with small and straightforward tasks that you can automate. After reaching a success in this area, you can get to a more sophisticated automation. But, again, the number one step is to really invest in understanding each area of your business and where you can fill in those gaps and automate

Many top-managers face reluctance from the team members when it comes to innovation changes. Some people are afraid to lose jobs; others are not ready to change their habits in the blink of an eye. What tactics could you advise top managers and CEOs in addressing these concerns?

I think the first thing is, which is really important is related to the culture. The truth is that going into each segment of your business you would see that most of these business segments are already gone through IT projects, whether it is related to upgrading accounting or payroll systems or moving to a whole another system altogether.

So, in a nutshell, it’s the same type of process. You just need to have a look at all the integrations out there. Look at the maintenance, look at the obstacles, look at what you’re doing as a business in the future and how this fits your plans and if you’re going to be moving into more legislation outside the United States. Those are things you have to keep in mind. But I think the important thing is to treat it the same way as you treat all of your other IT projects. I think the biggest area where I see concern is the cultural aspect, the cultural shock, the overwhelming feeling of moving to this type of technology. So, as long as you keep your feet on the ground and think of it as of any other IT project you worked on you’ll be successful.

What are the possible threats of a lack of automation in accounting?

There’s quite a few areas where you can definitely have some issues. So if you won’t automate, you’re going to have issues with business continuity, with clients or if everyone is working from home and you’re not on the cloud, you cannot access anything. And you cannot do lot of different types of processes that company needs to survive. There is an issue where people are being laid off, an issue where they cannot get the information they need to try to get into these programs that are going to help your business to give them some cash injections. 

On the other side of that, if you do implement innovation or RPA the really big issues that I’ve seen is that you’ve got the wrong people involved in this project that could actually lead to having to re-engineer the process about several times over wasting tons of time and costing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousand dollars. 

So it’s not only from not doing it, but also doing it incorrectly. Sometimes it can cause even more problems.

We launched this Thought Leader blog series as we in Electroneek strongly believe that any automatic processes are driven by human genius. Having such extensive experience in the field of constant business processes improvement, could you share several tips on how to succeed in such an ever-changing industry?

”the actual terminology should be “flow with the go”‘. That means that you need to be adaptive because you’re going to have so many different areas where things are pushing against you. So you need to be able to flow with that and be adaptive to that”. 

There are 2 things that come to mind. One of them, which actually helped me to become a better consultant and being, I learnt from my martial arts background, especially jiu jitsu. There is a saying within martial arts:

‘When you’re doing jiu jitsu it is not using the old saying of “go with the flow”. The actual terminology should be “flow with the go”‘. That means that you need to be adaptive because you’re going to have so many different areas where things are pushing against you. So you need to be able to flow with that and be adaptive to that. 

Another part of that is to have a mindset. You always need to think five steps ahead. Instead of just having a plan B, you’ve got to have plans C, D and E. Especially now, when it comes to COVID-19, a lot of businesses and a lot of consultants had to go to plans C, D and E. 

And one more piece of advice would come from Dr. Jordan Peterson. It’s called “clean your room”. The concept is that a lot of people are trying to run before they could walk. They are trying to do these major, complex issues. They may not have any idea, and so what he says: Before you even start to try to solve this major problem, start simple, cleaning your room, cleaning stuff around your desk. This will help you feel better, have a better mindset, and help you build an aim and tangible experience to take on much more significant tasks. That falls in the same line with business relationships. 

So to sum up, my advice would be: be humble, open, always learn. And be adaptive.

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