UiPath and the potential for automation

Jun 02, 2020
Richard Day and Alannah Comerford look at how Chartered Accountants can explore the potential for robotic process automation using UiPath.

In this series of articles, we are exploring the power of visualisation and data analytics and the benefits it can bring to Chartered Accountants. As you may know, the FAE syllabus was recently updated to include data analytics concepts and tools such as Tableau, Alteryx, and UiPath. Previous articles dealt with the concept of data visualisation and the value it can bring to an accountant, and most recently we covered the data processing tool, Alteryx, and the significant advantages it affords when performing data transformations and calculations.

In this article, we will move to the more advanced area of automation. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is an acronym you are probably familiar with, as more and more businesses seek to streamline their operations and exploit the advantages of automation. UiPath, which has been selected by the Institute, and similar tools enable RPA at a practical level. UiPath is a software solution that acts like a robot, programmed to perform the various activities in a process just as a human would. The tool can be used to run without human supervision or can work as an assistant.

Automation without human supervision is extremely difficult and may not be the answer for complex processes that require significant judgement, reasoning or analysis from the person performing them. In such cases, automation may still support the person who is completing these tasks as an assistant, but human intervention is vital. However, if we consider those processes that are suitable for automation, they can usually be described as highly repetitive, manual processes where the employee does not exert judgement. All decisions are made based on business rules and pre-defined logic. Significant value can be derived from automation where there is interaction between multiple systems, but the inputs required are standard, making the process tedious and time heavy. Similarly, when the current manual procedure is inadequate for standardising a process and remains subject to error, automation – which has the power to perform the process accurately every time – can be invaluable.

As an accountant, you might think that opportunities for automation should fall under the remit of those working in IT. Accountants, with their holistic knowledge of how a business operates and analytical nature, are ideally placed to identify potential automation opportunities and act as a key stakeholder throughout the process.

Automation at work

Consider a simple process whereby you are required to run reports or extracts from different systems and perform some data transformation and analytics on the information to produce an output, perhaps in the form of a reporting dashboard. Alteryx can be set-up to run workflows to deal with inputs from different systems and produce the desired output. However, you would still need to run the input files and refresh the dashboard manually. Incorporating UiPath can automate the process even further.
UiPath can log-in to each system and can be used to run specific reports from different systems at set times, replacing the need to download data manually. It can then load this data into Alteryx, run a pre-defined workflow, and produce the desired dataset. This information can then be brought into Tableau to refresh a dashboard with the current information. In this way, UiPath can be configured as an interface between systems to offer a fully integrated solution.

These processes can be as simple as taking a list of suppliers from one system, along with balances from another. UiPath can automate the production of these lists and balances for processing in Alteryx to produce a customer statement. This statement is then converted to a named PDF document and emailed to each customer. In an audit context, where proof of delivery can provide recognition of a sale, client records can be reconciled with those from a third-party delivery company, exceptions identified and presented for further investigation by the auditor.

A business can reap many rewards from automation. While efficiency and time-saving with a shorter cycle time immediately spring to mind, increased quality and compliance as a result of a reduction in errors and an increase in accuracy are also often seen. Unlike mere mortals, robots never sleep and processes can operate autonomously 24/7, driving real-time transactions and analysis.

While certainly more challenging to measure than the benefits outlined above, increased employee satisfaction through a focus on higher-value activities and a reduction in time spent on menial, repetitive tasks is a clear benefit. It helps shift the priorities of the employee to innovation, strategy and activities that add value to the business proposition, resulting in a happy and productive workforce and consequently, higher output.

While the benefits that automation can bring when applied to appropriate processes are clear, we must bear in mind that, while automation can reduce hours in the long run, up-front investment is required to get it right. Also, control-aware accountants would know that any automated process requires ongoing review. A successful move towards automation requires the skills that accountants use all the time. For example, detailed process maps that are validated by walk-throughs are essential as well as thorough testing with scenario analysis. Consideration of the impact on controls, appropriate training, procedures, and user manuals are also required along with a measurement of actual versus expected results and periodic performance assessments. Accountants are likely to be key stakeholders in each of these activities.
Admittedly, we have only just skimmed the surface of the potential of UiPath and what it can be used for. Still, given the myriad of considerations included above, this is hopefully understandable. We hope we have sparked a reflection on potential use cases in your own business and perhaps demonstrated areas where Alteryx alone may not go far enough. We encourage you to consider these use cases, investigate whether your organisation has the necessary experience and consider a proof of concept. In the world of RPA, do not be afraid to consult and draw on experience.
 
Richard Day FCA is Partner, Risk Assurance Leader, at PwC Ireland.

Alannah Comerford ACA is Senior Manager, Data Analytics & Assurance, at PwC Ireland.