Case Study: How Accountants Are Adjusting to Robots in This US Company

On a sunny, chilly autumn afternoon, in a mid-rise office building overlooking America's heartland, the future arrived at Blake Goforth’s cubicle. His manager wanted to speak privately; just a heads up before a meeting with the rest of Goforth's team at Flint Hills Resources (FHR).

At the time, Goforth supervised the accounts payable invoice processing group for the company based in Wichita, Kansas, which makes things such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, asphalt, and chemicals used in clothing and tires. Armed with an accounting degree and several years of general business and accounting experience, he was in a good place in his career, overseeing a team charged with administering thousands of vendor contracts and invoices each year.

As more companies adopt robotic process automation, accountants and other finance professionals are facing the same inflection point: Accept the change and learn the technology or risk losing professional relevance

As his manager spoke, though, Goforth realized his days in that role were numbered. The company wanted to automate the transactional parts of what his team did in an effort to increase efficiency, reduce errors, and carve a technological path towards machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).

If all went according to plan, Goforth and his team would spend less time doing traditional accounting and more time applying their analytical skills and knowledge of end-to-end processes to software that would ultimately conduct those manual processes. Was he on board?

He was, but not without some apprehension. "I don't have an IT background," he thought to himself in that moment. "I haven't written code. So what does this actually look like for me?"

Inflection point

As more companies adopt robotic process automation (RPA), accountants and other finance professionals are facing the same inflection point: Accept the change and learn the technology or risk losing professional relevance.

About 53% of companies were using some form of RPA in 2017, and the technology could be almost universal by 2022, according to a Deloitte survey. And around 40% of transactional accounting work is expected to be automated or eliminated by 2020, according to Accenture.

Goforth's situation, to this point in the story, isn't unusual. But the story of how his career has evolved since that conversation in autumn just might be.

It's the tale of how an employer successfully implemented automation in partnership with the people whose jobs at a more short-sighted company might have been replaced by the technology – and how people such as Goforth are actually thriving because of it.

Citizen developers

FHR has trained process-oriented finance staff and managers to use RPA software, saving tens of thousands of employee-hours on an annual basis across the enterprise. It has celebrated and promoted those who show an aptitude for automating once-manual tasks, producing automation evangelists who are spreading the gospel of automation throughout the organization.

Along the way, FHR has embraced a culture of experimentation and fast failure and has developed more effective ways to communicate and manage change. The journey has helped build trust and dispel myths, misconceptions, and job-security fears amongst the rank and file.

And it has given strength to a new species of accountant, one who understands the transactional side of the business but who also possesses a firm grasp of technology, data analysis, risk philosophy, and finance modelling.

All this has happened in the time it takes a baby to learn how to walk.

"The pace of change isn't slowing," said Rodney Suter, FHR's director of automation and a former controller at the company. "[Companies need] to figure this out quickly. Being a fast follower is not a winning strategy today. You need to be out front of shifts in technology and be a leader in that space. 'Fast follower' means you're done."

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